Facebook Shouldn't Ban Attacks on "Zionists"

Sure, the word is sometimes used as a pejorative term for “Jew.” But does anyone really think that banning it, as is reportedly being discussed, will prevent other terms from taking its place?

Shutterstock/TY Lim.

Shutterstock/TY Lim.

Feb. 17 2021
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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“Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me” was a rhyme that every child knew and resorted to often when I was growing up in New York long ago. Whatever taunt came your way, that was your answer. It wasn’t just meant for the taunter; it also comforted the answerer. “Call me what you want,” it said. “I know inside of me who I am—and that’s somewhere you can’t get to.”

Of course, that wasn’t entirely true—names could and often did hurt you—but you learned not to give them too much importance. There was a difference between being insulted and having your nose punched. And you also learned that if someone could say what they wanted about you, you could say what you wanted about them, which was the upside.

Today, Americans live in a culture of “Names will always hurt me,” which is why they obsess so much about “hate speech” and about what it does or doesn’t consist of and what laws or regulations should exist to curb it. The debate now taking place over whether social media such as Facebook and Twitter should ban attacks on “Zionists” because the word “Zionist” is sometimes used as a pejorative term for “Jew” is a good example of the absurd lengths to which an obsession with such speech can lead.

It’s an obsession that’s futile. Once you start, there’s no end to it. Yes, there are people who say “dirty Zionist” when they mean “dirty Jew” and who speak of “Zionist criminality” when they mean “Jewish criminality.” But does anyone really think that banning such expressions will prevent others from taking their place? If I’m not allowed to attack “Zionists,” I’ll attack “matzah-ball eaters,” and if I’m not allowed to say a bad word on Facebook about matzah balls, I’ll think of something else. It’s a sure path to an infinite regression.

Moreover, unless we mean to ban the words “Zionism” and “Zionist” from social media entirely, including their use by Zionism’s supporters, who is to determine when they are functioning as slurs against Jews and when not? Clearly, if I say “the Zionists want to take over the world,” I’m voicing an anti-Semitic canard. But if I say “Zionists put Jews first,” am I being an anti-Semite or simply uttering a truth about Jewish nationalism that could just as well apply to the national movement of any people?

We all know, of course, how to deal with such a problem: you appoint a committee to rule on it. But the word “Zionist” comes up in social media thousands of times every day. How many committees would Facebook need in order to review each such case? And even if all the necessary committees were to be established, why assume that they would come to sensible conclusions, let alone agree with one another?

Besides which, the whole thing is, as I’ve said, double-edged. If you can’t attack “Zionists” because you may be referring to all Jews, why should I be allowed to attack “jihadists” when I may be referring to all Muslims, or “fundamentalists” when I may be referring to all Christians, or “idol worshipers” when I may referring to all Hindus? The logical answer is that I shouldn’t be. Indeed, this is the direction we are heading in: one in which public criticism of certain racial, religious, or social groups, no matter how veiled by euphemism, will be forbidden. It is, ultimately, the direction to a public discourse of mindlessness.

Nor is it just a question of euphemisms. The boys from the Irish Catholic schools who came looking for fights with us Jewish kids didn’t call us “dirty Zionists”; they called us “dirty Jews,” pure and simple. I didn’t like being called that then and I wouldn’t like being called it now. But just as it never occurred to me as a boy that “dirty Jew” should be a banned expression, so I don’t think it should be one now. Should it be frowned upon? Of course. Rebuked? Whenever possible. Its users shunned? Yes, definitely. But banned, whether in speech, in print, or digitally? Not if we wish to preserve anything resembling freedom of speech—and where there is no freedom of speech, let us remember, there is, sooner or later, no freedom of thought.

Of course, even for a society that understands that outward censorship of speech inevitably results in inward censorship of thought, there can be no absolutely clear line between what should or shouldn’t be allowed in fighting expressions or opinions that we consider baneful. Still, one might formulate certain common-sense propositions. If, for example, I refuse to publish a book that denies the Holocaust, it would be absurd to accuse me of infringing on anyone’s rights. On the contrary, it’s I who should have the right not to be forced to publish anything I don’t want to.

Nor would I be challenging anyone’s freedom of speech if I sought to persuade other publishers not to publish such a book, or if, supposing it were published by someone, I organized a peaceful boycott of it and of the bookstores that sold it. Yet if, on the other hand, I make it a crime (as it is in many countries today) for such a book to be published at all, I have gone too far. You’re dumb or bigoted enough to think the Holocaust never existed? It should be your right to say so in the public space, just as it should be my right to call you dumb and bigoted. .

When it comes to something like “Zionist,” what needs to be asked is whether social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should be likened to publishers or to public spaces—and they are, I would say, much more like the latter. Even the largest publisher publishes only a tiny percentage of the books that appear in print and does not publish anything automatically simply by virtue of its having been submitted for publication. Facebook, Twitter, and a very small number of similar applications, on the other hand, control nearly all open communication over the Internet and let everything appear in them as long as it is not specifically blacklisted. Although they are money-making concerns, they cannot be considered ordinary businesses and for them to bar a word, expression, or opinion from being voiced is like barring its voicing in the streets or parks of a city.

When does a word, expression, or opinion become a “clear and present danger” to life and limb, to use the sensible criterion laid down in the landmark case of Schenck vs. the United States that was decided by the Supreme Court in 1919? That’s a good and legitimate question, and countries like the United States have their laws and legal precedents regarding it. But as long as nasty remarks about Zionists remain unlikely to send their readers immediately running to the nearest synagogue with a loaded gun, they’re only words, not sticks and stones.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

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