18 April 2007

17 April 2007 - The right to hate

South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils is at it again, boasting on the Ministry for Intelligence Services website that he has been cleared of “hate speech” by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). This is a blatant abuse of public resources for personal purposes, and is a habit with Kasrils; he used the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry website the same way a few years ago.

Kasrils, who initiated the SAHRC inquiry himself, claims the SAHRC found “that his criticism of Israel’s policies and actions in respect of the Palestinians does not amount to the advocacy of hate speech but constitutes legitimate political debate.” That is actually a distortion of the truth. No one complained that mere criticism of Israel was hate speech. Rather, the objection was to extreme and offensive criticism when Kasrils called Jews “Nazis” and referred to Israelis as “baby-killers.”

Kasrils made these comments in an op-ed piece in the Mail & Guardian (“Rage of the Elephant”), and in a two-part series of articles in the ANC’s online journal, Umrabulo (“David and Goliath: Who is who in the Middle East” Part 1 and 2). I responded to the M&G article with an op-ed of my own, to which Kasrils did not reply. Other people wrote letters to the editor, and a few wrote op-eds of their own.

One of the latter was Anthony Posner, who wrote an article in the South African Jewish Report entitled, “Some pertinent questions to Kasrils.” Kasrils tried to respond, but when SAJR editor Geoff Sifrin saw the piece he decided not to publish it, on the grounds that the majority of readers would consider it “hate speech.” Kasrils, furious, accused Sifrin of censorship worthy of the apartheid government.

Kasrils was perhaps reacting to more than a simple article in a small community newspaper. His comments about Jews had resulted in the withdrawal of an invitation to speak at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg—which, as a German institution, was not eager to endorse Kasrils’s comparison with Nazis. This incident caused Kasrils a great deal of embarrassment when the story hit the national press.

Kasrils decided to hit back with every means at his disposal. He enlisted the aid of the Freedom of Expression Insitute (FXI), which despite its purported neutrality often takes anti-Israel positions (perhaps because senior FXI staffer Naeem Jeenah is closely linked to pro-Palestinian organizations in South Africa). Rather than defend the editorial independence of the SAJR, the FXI came out to bat for Kasrils.

In addition, Kasrils approached the Media Review Network (MRN), a radical Pretoria-based Islamist propaganda machine that espouses Holocaust denial and boasts links to terror organizations like Hizbollah. The MRN, which has provided “research” for Kasrils’s anti-Israel diatribes in the past, published Kasrils’s response to Posner on its website and claimed Kasrils had been “victimized.”

The debate carried over into the mainstream media. In a letter to the Business Day: Weekender Edition of Oct. 14, 2006, journalist Rehana Roussouw criticized the Goethe Institute for un-inviting Kasrils. Anti-apartheid veteran Helen Suzman responded in a letter a week later, pointing out that the South African Constitution did not protect hate speech, “into which category Kasrils's allegations clearly fall.”

This, then, set the stage for Kasrils’s approach to the SAHRC. Like the FXI, the SAHRC was another open goal for Kasrils. SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen protected Kasrils in 2004-5, refusing to act when Kasrils named the National Intelligence Academy after Mzwandile Piliso, a notorious human rights abuser whom even the ANC had rebuked for torturing prisoners in ANC camps.

The SAHRC’s decision—which was also published on the intelligence ministry’s website, as well as by the Kasrils-friendly, Israel-unfriendly editors at the M&G—backed Kasrils. It interpreted the ban on hate speech narrowly, ruling that hate speech must be actual “advocacy of hatred” and declaring: “The robust debate of ideas, the lifeblood of any constitutional democracy, must be safeguarded.”

On the one hand, this is consistent with the approach that other South African tribunals, such as the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, have taken towards hate speech. Wary of reverting to the restrictions that were once the norm in the South African media, judges and commissioners have leaned heavily towards a liberal interpretation of the constitutional right to the freedom of expression.

On the other hand, the SAHRC did not consider the context of Kasrils’s remarks. In certain circumstances, referring to Jews as “Nazis” would indeed amount to “advocacy of hatred” or incitement to violence. In the weeks and months before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, for example, he was frequently portrayed as a Nazi by the Israeli hard-right.

In many European countries, such as Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial has been criminalized, despite the fact that many of these countries have very strong protections for the freedom of expression in general. (Germany is also leading efforts to make Holocaust denial a crime across the EU). I personally disagree with laws against Holocaust denial, because they make bigots into free speech martyrs. But many Europeans feel such laws to be necessary safeguards against hatred.

Context is everything, and for many Jews—certainly Jews of the wartime generation—comparing Jews to the Nazis that murdered them will always amount to hate speech and incitement. It may be a matter of opinion whether calling Jews “Nazis” or calling Israelis “baby-killers” is motivated by the intent to advocate hatred, but last year set new records for antisemitic incidents in South Africa.

In addition, the SAHRC seems to have left out the views of both Sifrin and Suzman. The report claims the SAHRC “afforded both Mrs. Suzman and the SAJR an opportunity to make further representations” and adds: “We are grateful to them for acceding to our request.” However, there is no record of what they said, and it would seem that the SAHRC did not, in fact, seek their input in any serious fashion.

The SAHRC also deigns to lecture the Jewish community about what it should, and should not, debate, saying that if Jews “are of the view that the comparison [with Nazis] is odious, unjustified and illogical, then it is preferable for them to articulate these sentiments fully and robustly engage in a debate of ideas.” It does not consider what effect such a ridiculous “debate” would have on antisemitism.

Finally, the SAHRC takes a swipe at Suzman: “To accuse a person of engaging in hate speech is a serious charge as it is tantamount to suggesting that the person is undermining and subverting core values of the Constitution.” But Suzman did not bring the accusation to the SAHRC; Kasrils did. And surely she is entitled to a view about what is, and is not, hate speech, even if her view does not carry legal weight.

In any event, Kasrils is trumpeting the SAHRC decision as a personal vindication—not only of his right to express his views, but of their correctness. He casts Suzman’s as attempting to suppress “criticism of Israel’s policies and actions in respect of the Palestinians”; nowhere in his press release does he admit what the case was really about—namely, his reference to Jews and Israelis to “Nazis” and “baby-killers.”

Kasrils is also demanding his critics show contrition: “Welcoming the HRC findings Kasrils has challenged his detractors, including the Goethe Institute who refused to allow him to address a meeting at their Johannesburg premises, to accept the HRC findings.” He seems to think the SAHRC decision means that not only is he allowed to express his views, but also that everyone else must accept and promote them.

While flaunting his own freedom of speech, Kasrils forgets everyone else has theirs, too. He can call Jews Nazis—that, it seems, is his right. But no one is obliged to print his remarks, and Suzman and the Goethe Institute and every other reasonable person has the right to tell him to get stuffed. What kind of democracy requires every newspaper and every organization to publicize a minister's views?

It might be interesting to refer a new question to the SAHRC: namely, whether it is an abuse of Kasrils's human rights for the SAJR to refuse to publish him or the Goethe Institute to refuse to host him or for the Union of Jewish Women to refuse to serve him tea and cake, or whatever. The point would simply be to illustrate that while Kasrils has his right to free speech, so does everybody else in South Africa.

But it might be all right, as well, to let the issue rest. After all, it is somewhat embarrassing for Kasrils personally and South Africa in general (though I doubt whether Kasrils realizes it) for him to proclaim, on a government website, that his right to slander Jews is a moral victory for humankind. Bisho, Zimbabwe, Iran: all undermine Kasrils’s human rights pretensions, and so does this latest farce.

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