By Jacob Mchangama

2023 was a disastrous year for free speech in liberal democracies. Unfortunately, 2024 only promises to deepen the free speech recession that has been sweeping open societies for years.

On October 7th 2023, Hamas operatives carried out the deadliest single attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Some 1,200 people were killed including hundreds of civilians. The Hamas attack not only triggered a bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza. It also had immediate consequences for already tense debates about the limits of free speech in open democracies far removed from the carnage in the Middle East.

Students and academics at elite universities in the United States justified and sometimes even celebrated the mass slaughter of Israeli civilians. In Europe and Australia, pro-Palestinian demonstrations were accompanied by horrific antisemitic chants, including calls to «gas the Jews» and for the destruction of Israel. In Berlin, a synagogue was attacked with firebombs while Stars of David were scrawled on apartments housing Jews, reminiscent of Nazi policies in the 1930s. In Denmark the intelligence services advised Jews against demonstrating in public due to credible terrorist threats.

A danger to tolerance

There are compelling reasons why governments and civil society should worry deeply about outpouring of hatred and extremism on a continent where antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry are rearing their ugly heads, and political parties with explicitly intolerant agendas are on the march. Unfortunately, the default reaction from both governments and cultural institutions has been to respond with censorial and repressive measures that are likely to be counterproductive and dangerous to both freedom of expression and tolerance.

The outbursts of antisemitism following the Hamas attack were particularly concerning to European governments given the fate of European Jews during Nazism. In France and Germany, authorities banned pro-Palestinian protests, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and several people were charged with glorification of terrorism or hate speech. This includes a French trade union leader arrested in his home at dawn for a Facebook post. 16 French Senators went even further and submitted a bill that would punish anti-Zionism and «hateful» criticism of Israel with prison of up to 5 years. The Guardian fired cartoonist Steve Bell for a cartoon critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which the newspaper deemed antisemitic. Several cultural events in both Europe and the United States featuring Palestinian authors, academics, filmmakers, and musicians were canceled despite the fact that they had no relationship to terrorism.

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