Lawrence: Fight hate with free speech, scholarship
President, Wiesel, Patrick and Foxman discuss 'The New Anti-Semitism'
President Fred Lawrence advocated broad exercise of free speech, scholarly criticism of biased analysis and strong support for studies in the humanities as responses to “The New Anti-Semitism,” a subject he explored with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham H. Foxman and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick before an overflow crowd at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall on Nov. 7.
Lawrence invoked the legacy of Justice Louis Brandeis in response to fears expressed at the ADL-sponsored forum about the use of the Internet to spread slander and hatred of Jews. He reminded Foxman of Brandeis’ dictum that “the answer to bad speech is more speech” and said figuring out how to make the Internet a force for good is a worthier endeavor than trying to solve problems through government regulation.
“We live in a world that does have an Internet, and government regulation not only raises constitutional problems it raises practical problems,” Lawrence said. “The net is going to be more of a force for good if we can harness it, but whether it is or is not, I assure you it will be a force.”
Unquestionably, he said, the development of this technology is producing new situations and problems.
“It used to be, until relatively recently, to assault someone you had to be in physical proximity to them or you had to touch an object that reached them, like a written threat,” Lawrence said, “whereas now you can instantly instill fear in someone [through the Internet] without ever being in the same place with them. That becomes a challenge for the law… to understand that assault now is something that can happen in a much more remote way.”
In response to a question from the audience about what to do about scholars who propagated stories about exaggerated Jewish influence in America, or who denied or minimized the Holocaust, he said it is the responsibility of all scholars to submit their work to critical review and to criticize the work of others.
“The idea that there is a pro-Israel lobby that has this exaggerated power in the way this country is run has… received criticism not because it is anti-Semitism… but criticism because it doesn’t stand up, as scholarship it is vacuous,” Lawrence said. “Ultimately, that’s going to be the better argument.”
People have a constitutional right to write what they want, Lawrence said, “and I have a constitutional right to say it is no good.”
He also was asked how people should differentiate between thoughtful criticism of Israeli policy and hatred.
“Before you can call something anti-Israel, we need a working definition and I’ll tell you one of my easy ones before we get to the hard stuff,” Lawrence said. “Anything that is said on a daily basis on the floor of the Knesset, I’m afraid we can’t count as anti-Israel.”
Nearly 1,000 people from Greater Boston’s Jewish, professional, academic, and secular networks pre-registered and more were on waiting lists to enter the 500-seat hall. The American Jewish Committee, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Facing History and Ourselves, the Jewish Community Relations Council and over 30 other partnering organizations reached out to their constituencies and formally supported the event.