Striking an Unending Series of Small Blows Against Hate

  • April 15, 2008
Remarks of the Honorable Steny H. Hoyer
U.S. House Majority Leader
Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Conference
Washington, DC April 15, 2008
As Prepared for Delivery

An old Jewish story I love starts with a man knocking on the door of his town's rabbi. "Rabbi," he says, "For the last year, I've been spreading terrible rumors about my next-door neighbor. But I've decided to repent! Tell me what I need to do to take my words back."

So the rabbi rummages around in the back of his house and finally comes out with…a pillow. He says, "I'll tell you just what to do. Take this pillow to the middle of the town square, slit it open, and wave it over your head until all the feathers fly out and blow away. Then come right back."

And the man, who's terribly confused by now, but who thinks the rabbi has just revealed a powerful magic spell, runs off to the town square and does just as he's told. A few minutes later, he's back at the front door with an empty pillow sack, and he says, "Rabbi, I did just what you told me. Now what?"

"Now," says the rabbi, "bring back the feathers."

I think it's telling that that's a Jewish story, a story of a people that knows better than any other what it's like to face hateful words. It's easy for anyone to say, "I take my words back." But as the rabbi in the story knows, the truth is that it's impossible to take back our words—any words. As soon as they leave our mouth, they're free to blow around the world like feathers, and they're just as impossible to gather back up.

Words spoken in hate against the Jewish people, even those spoken ages ago, are still blowing around the world to this day. The czarist hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, finds itself transformed in the 21st century into a Middle-Eastern TV series. The ancient blood libel, just when we think it's been dug up at the roots, sprouts through the centuries again and again. And we can add to these the despicable modern myth that somehow equates Israelis and Nazis—a myth that, to be bluntly honest, may not go away anytime soon.

But as long as we stand against hate—hate of Jews, or of any other group—we'll always run into a paradox. Words can do immense damage—at worst, as history has painfully taught us, words can pave the way for great violence. But at the same time—they're "just words." They're light as feathers. We can't stop them from being spoken; we can't vacuum them back up. And in a free society, we shouldn't want to.

The solution is an imperfect one; but it's the best we've ever found. It's been repeated to the point of cliché, but it needs to be said again, and again: "The best cure for hate speech is more speech."

Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it in a letter to John Adams: "Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds….Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both."

If we can expose lies; if we can blow up contradictions; if we can mock and ridicule bigotry—we can keep striking an unending series of small blows against hate.

No organization typifies that path—the method of fighting speech with speech—better than the Anti-Defamation League. Every day, the members of your group must see material that would make the average person sick to his stomach. But you don't explode in rage of your own. Still less do you call on government to censor the speech you don't like. Instead, you compile, you probe, you investigate, you educate, you persuade, you organize, you decry, often forcefully, often passionately—but always trusting in the power of words to fight words.

I've seen your response to the disgusting cartoons depicting Israeli soldiers as Nazis committing genocide. I've seen your anger—your measured anger, your justified anger. But I've seen behind it the faith that the lies and libel of those cartoons can be confronted with truth and ultimately overcome. I don't have to say how favorably that compares to the response to another set of offensive cartoons we all know about.

I've always been a believer in the power of words. You may know that I used to chair the Helsinki Commission, a group charged with standing up for human rights in Europe. And I'm sure you know that one of the dominant issues we faced was the plight of Soviet Jewry, hundreds of thousands of citizens of Russia denied their freedom of movement and their right to immigrate to Israel. The Commission, like the Helsinki monitors behind the Iron Curtain, had few enforcement powers—but we had a pulpit, and we used it. And I think that the worldwide attention we brought to their cause helped ease their way out of oppression, and into a new home.

I've been proud not simply to work for the security of our ally, Israel, but to speak for it—because the first attacks on Israel have always been ideological attacks. And I've always been vigilant to see that disagreement with Israeli policy, which can be justified, never crosses the line into anti-Semitism—which can never be justified.

When Iran's President Ahmadinejad called the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust a "myth," I denounced his lies with the strongest words I could find. On the House floor, I've pointed out that Israel is denied the opportunity to serve on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights—an opportunity extended to well-known human rights abusers Syria, Libya, and Sudan. I've pointed out that that, each year, Israel is singled out for criticism nearly two dozen times in the General Assembly. Words from Congressional leaders may not end attacks like those; but imagine how much more damage they'd do if they went unanswered, unopposed.

That goes for attacks large and small. Maybe you've heard of the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. It's home for Cairo's 30 or 40 Jews, all that are left of a once-flourishing community. On most Sabbaths, it can't even gather ten men for prayer. And on all the walls in that enormous city of 16 million, it was on a wall across from Sha'ar Hashamayim—the last functioning synagogue in Cairo—that a group hung a set of huge, anti-Semitic banners.

I sat down face-to-face with the Prime Minister of Egypt. And at the very least, I can say this: Those banners came down.

It can be easy and tempting to shrug off bigotry like that. But you know and I know: It can spin out of control very quickly, with hateful and tragic consequences. In this century, we shouldn't even need a reminder. But if we do, the murder of Matthew Shepard, or of James Byrd, teaches us how hateful words can spark brutal crimes. Hate crimes like those don't just sicken the conscience—they terrorize entire communities and threaten to enflame group against group. That's why I've pushed for years to strengthen and broaden hate crimes legislation. We're not there yet, and the Senate's failure to pass a free-standing bill is testimony to the challenges we face. But we're making real progress.

Finally, let me address the tragedy of Darfur. I recently read an editorial that put it devastatingly: "Never again?…Again and again is more like it." Faced with evil and murder and rape on that scale, words are far, far from enough. But if you or I can use the platforms we've been given to remind our country of what we're witnessing and doing so little to end, we will be doing what we should expect of ourselves and of others. My first foreign travel as Majority Leader was to Darfur, in April of 2007. Eleven Members of Congress went with me—seven Democrats and four Republicans. And together, we helped call attention the genocide and the international cooperation we'll need to stop it. I know it was just a small step. But it was a step.

In 1966, in Cape Town, South Africa, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a gathering of students. He said: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

That, of course, has been the mission of the ADL, through all its inclusive history. "Never again" does not mean, cannot mean, "Never again to the Jews." It means, it must mean, "Never again—to anyone."

There may be, at any one time, a thousand local fights against hate in all its forms. But what binds them up into one struggle is more than just our knowledge that intolerance has caused untold pain, and suffering, and strife. What binds them up is what we understand about words. We know their danger, we know their elusiveness—but we also know their power to convince and to heal.

Your charter reads, "The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience...the defamation of the Jewish people."

"Come, let us reason together," said the prophet Isaiah. In your line of work, that's the only tool you've ever really had. I have faith—and, I trust, you have faith—that it will be enough.

Thank you very much.