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Is there room for exceptionalism in the case of anti-Semitic speech?

In Slate, William Saletan asks “How can we ban hate speech against Jews while defending mockery of Muslims?

By “we” he does not mean America — but the entire West. Saletan correctly points out that it is, certainly, less tolerable to engage in “hate speech” that offends Jews than “hate speech” that offends Muslims. He thinks this is deeply hypocritical, calling for equal treatment of this kind of speech — ban it all or tolerate it all. This logic resonates with me as a free speech advocate. But, is it correct? Is there a rational basis, or even a compelling reason, for treating anti-semitic speech differently?

Many of the laws that chap Saletan’s ass are laws in European countries prohibiting pro-nazi speech, or holocaust denial. Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps logic and justice dictate that we consider all speech to be equal. However, I think we do even the cause of free speech a disservice if we do not at least consider the notion that maybe hate speech aimed at Jews is properly placed in a different category than other hate speech.

There is no arguing that Jews have had a unique experience. The Inquisition, pogroms, and then finally the Holocaust – an actual coordinated, industrialized, effort to exterminate an entire race of people from the face of the Earth. Is there no room in the religious discipline of the exaltation of free expression for exceptionalism? When certain speech (in this case anti-Semitic speech) has provably led to one of the most horrific examples of evil that mankind has ever known, is there no argument in favor of devaluing that speech?

I do not say this to endorse exceptionalism in the case of anti-Semitic speech. I have somewhat absolutist views toward free speech. I do, however, think that those of us who hold free speech up as an almost religious concept must be mindful that we remember one of its purposes — wide open and robust debate. We do our cause little service by simply ignoring the possibility that we could be wrong. Saletan’s weakness is not that he is wrong, but that he fails to show any respect for the fact that exceptionalism might be based in something tangible, reasonable, and rational. There is a valid interest in play — the interest of a distinct minority in not being brought to violent extinction. There should be room in any absolutist’s mind for some respect for that interest. Perhaps that interest can be satisfied by something less than exceptionalism, but it can never be satisfied if we simply pretend that it does not exist.

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