It’s easy to support freedom of expression when you’re safe, warm, and don’t risk anything. It’s harder when the world is on fire. When one has reason to fear that a point of view will incite anger and violence, or damage your reputation or finances.
That’s when our principles are tested. Even now, in light of the war between Israel and Hamas, the principle of freedom of expression is no longer as sacred in Western countries as one might imagine.
Those who want to cry out with anger and sadness on behalf of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip and kidnapped Israeli hostages have every reason to feel that the space for expression is not as open as it ideally should be. But they may know it in different ways.
Palestinian writer Adenya Shibli was supposed to receive a literary award during the Frankfurt Book Fair. But the organization that awards the award, Litprom, canceled the ceremony due to “the war in Israel.”
Shibli’s nomination as winner of the award had already been debated due to the negative portrayal of Israeli soldiers in Shibli’s novel. One juror withdrew from the jury when she was selected. But the refusal to honor a Palestinian writer because atrocities occurred for which she was in no way responsible was interesting.
So were the layoffs that started coming. Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco was fired for publishing and signing an open letter supporting the liberation of Palestine.
It also got Michael Eisen, editor-in-chief of the scientific journal eLife, who is also Jewish. He had published an article from the satirical magazine The Onion with the sarcastic title, “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Their Last Words to Condemn Hamas.”
In France, the Minister of the Interior tried Gerald Darmanin to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations, noting that the number of anti-Semitic acts has exploded. The general ban in the legal system has been stopped.
Recently resigned British Home Secretary Suella Braverman wrote to police that carrying the Palestinian flag could be interpreted as support for terrorism. In Germany, a number of Jewish artists and writers gathered to protest the cancellation of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. In an open letter, they declared that they were concerned about restrictions on the rights of ordinary Germans.
When it is this aspect of the conflict that faces primarily purely formal restrictions on freedom of expression, it must be viewed in the context of the history of the West. The persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust are part of the original sin. The fear of not being able to protect vulnerable Jewish minorities has become clear.
Because in a number of European countries, there are now reports of a sharp rise in the number of anti-Semitic violations. Police in the UK reported a staggering 1,353 per cent increase in the first weeks of October, compared to the same period last year.
Here at home, the Mosaic religious community spoke of Norwegian Jews who had undergone horrific experiences. About a family who woke up to threatening screams outside the house and the wheels of a stroller opening. About a protester carrying Palestinian and Israeli flags, who was harassed to the point that he had to seek police protection to escape.
Many reacted strongly when an Israeli flag with a swastika was hung on a minaret in Oslo earlier this month.
Hence, in practice, they may not have much to say, as it is not States or employers who are silent. Naturally, such experiences create deep fear and mean that many choose to remain silent. In an article published in Aftenposten, researchers Kittel B. Simonsen and Vibeke Moe argue that Norwegian Jews are reluctant to say they are Jewish in social contexts. Many of them have started following their children to school.
But where is the limit to what we can face, not only with counter-arguments and criticism, but also with sanctions? Porn star and influencer Mia Khalifa until recently worked on a separate channel on the Playboy platform.
When the Hamas terrorist attacks began on October 7, and videos of the attack spread on social media, Khalifa wrote on X/Twitter: “Can someone tell the freedom fighters in Palestine to turn their phones and film horizontally,” and “I can”. “I don’t think the Zionist apartheid regime was overthrown by guerrilla fighters wearing fake Gucci T-shirts.”
Although Khalifa later said that the tweets in no way encouraged widespread violence, several professional collaborations quickly deteriorated, including a connection with Playboy. There will always be limits to what a customer can guarantee indirectly, by continuing to promote or cooperate with the person making the statement.
There were many reactions to the dismissals at Artforum and eLife, and to attempts to restrict the right to demonstrate in several European countries. Few people seem to have a problem with Playboy parting ways with Khalifa.
For those who experienced the dismissals, cancellations and finger-pointing that came after the October 7 terrorist attack, it still seems as if Western countries are experiencing a lot of stress in the wake of such a violent and sustained earthquake.
In many countries, the institutions that were supposed to guarantee freedom of expression and ensure that people were able to speak freely have not lived up to this responsibility. Of course, the most comfortable thing is to ban, remove or banish expressions that are perceived as risky, so as not to be held indirectly responsible for them.
But it seems short term. The task before them now is more complex: to prepare for action against hate speech, whether against Jews or Norwegian Muslims, while at the same time allowing as much pure political discourse as possible to the many who need to vent their anger, sadness, and frustration.
If there was ever a time when we had to put up with a lot from each other, it’s probably now.
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