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The Uncivil Servant: BDS and Free Speech in France

Mitchell Abidor
November 11, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

banksy-free-speechIN LATE OCTOBER, France’s highest appeals court issued a decision with such alarming implications that it deserved far greater notice outside that country than it has received. The court determined that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is in violation of French law prohibiting discrimination based on national origin. The court has, in essence, determined that simply protesting against Israel’s policies is an anti-Semitic act. The dreams of Netanyahu have been fulfilled.

The case in question is actually one that dated back several years and dealt with a BDS group in Mulhouse, Alsace, fourteen of whose members participated in 2009 and 2010 in demonstrations outside a Carrefour supermarket calling for a boycott of goods produced in Israel. The demonstrators not only distributed leaflets, but also — oh crime of crimes! — wore t-shirts calling for a boycott. Though no financial or physical harm was done to the store, which did not initiate the complaint, the mere protest was determined to “provoke hatred and violence against a person or a group of persons because of their origin or their membership in an ethnic group, race, or religion.”

67e682ad-46b8-417a-b34e-9a433eb2f742The decision has given rise to protests against the this attack on the right to free expression — which, it must be remembered, does not exist in France, which has no first amendment. Hate speech is illegal there, period. What is alarming in this case is that hate speech was not “Kill the Kikes” but “Palestine Will Live, Boycott Israel.”

The Represented Council of French Jewry, CRIF, drew the kind of conclusion one expects from mainstream Jewish organizations. According to CRIF, the protests are “verbally violent” and BDS supporters “fight freedom and the cause they think just by illegal means, which also lead to anti-Semitic excesses like ‘Quick, bring back the yellow star and striped pajamas, and later we’ll boycott the Jews.’” That none of this was actually said by the protestors is of no importance to CRIF. And there is this delicious bit from their legal counsel:

The supreme jurisdiction of our judicial order thus confirms that freedom of expression can be subject to those restrictions and sanctions that are necessary measures in a democratic society for the defense of order and the protection of the rights of others.

The right that was protected here was that of being able to purchase hummus. CRIF’s reasoning is both Orwellian and laughable — but dangerous, for all that.

The hypocrisy of the French court is especially striking. Apparently not all boycotts are the same; the one against South African apartheid was never subject to any judicial attacks. Besides, what “ethnic group, race, or religion” is harmed by this protest? Will those, like CRIF, who defend the decision by saying it’s aimed at only one nation, Israel, now demand that no protests be held against any one nation?

This decision is not only wrong on the facts: Instead of protecting Jews, as CRIF believes, it provides further ammunition to the anti-Jewish belief that the French state is in the pay of the Jews, or at least serves to protect them. The appeals court thus essentially has given support to the worst elements in the pro-Palestinian movement, those who bomb synagogues and attack Jewish schools, who make no distinction between Jews and the state of Israel.

The decision is a horror on all levels. Once again, France has demonstrated that what was said by many after the “Je Suis Charlie” demonstrations is true: Free speech is something that is defended selectively. It exists for those who mock Islam, but not for those who condemn Israel. Free speech is for me, but not for thee.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.