JNS.org – Who is most effective in the fight against the resurgence of anti-Semitism: Facebook or French justice?
I’m asking this question in particular because of two separate developments over the past week that, taken together, suggest that private sector social media neophytes are far better equipped to tackle anti-Jewish agitation than the venerable jurist. . system of an EU Member State and a leading world power.
Last Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a 180-degree policy reversal: Holocaust denial is now a lie that Facebook will no longer tolerate on its platform. In an interview two years ago, Zuckerberg ruled out banning Holocaust denial, arguing that the best way to combat “bad speech” was “good speech.” Now he is no longer so convinced. “I have struggled with the tension between standing up for free speech and the damage done by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” he wrote in a blog post. “My own thinking evolved as I saw data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as did our broader hate speech policies.”
There were other factors in Zuckerberg’s development, including the concerns expressed by advertisers about hate speech and fake news more widely on Facebook. But the fact remains that Zuckerberg’s point of view on this issue has evolved in recognition of changing circumstances, which is more than can be said of prosecutors and judges in France.
Two days before Zuckerberg declared his change on Holocaust denial, there was a chilling reminder of the danger he poses on full screen along Paris’s famous Rue de Rivoli. The columns of one of the historic buildings lining the street had been vandalized with giant swastikas painted red, including 20 in all. The French interior minister and the mayor of Paris were among the politicians who rushed to condemn the outrage, noting that it was another sign of looming anti-Semitism that the country’s political establishment pledged to eliminate.
The suspected vandal – a 31-year-old man from the Republic of Georgia – was captured by police on Sunday. The next day he was sent for a psychiatric evaluation, which determined he did not suffer from a mental illness, and from there he was taken into police custody.
On Wednesday, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced that the man was accused of causing damage to private property. The most serious crime – an offense aggravated by racial or religious hatred – was missing from the indictment. Why? Because like the newspaper Le Figaro explained, the prosecutor ruled that since the vandalized building did not contain any historical Jewish associations and did not belong to Jews, spraying the main symbol of Nazism on its exterior could not be interpreted as a hate crime targeting the Jewish community.
One of the lawyers of the LICRA, a civic organization which fights against anti-Semitism and racism, expressed herself “amazed” by the decision of the prosecutors, reaction shared by the CRIF, the body representing the French Jews, with the French Jewish student association, UEJF. In the sense that the judicial authorities in a country plagued by anti-Semitic violence for nearly 20 years fail to associate the swastika with hatred directed against Jews, this is indeed staggering – and frankly insulting. But maybe because we are talking about France, it is not necessarily surprising.
After all, the Islamist anti-Semite who cruelly murdered 65-year-old Jewish woman Sarah Halimi in her Paris apartment in April 2017 has been excused from a criminal trial on the grounds that her cannabis use on the night of the murder made delusional, and therefore not criminally responsible.
Of course, the Halimi case is far more serious than swastika vandalism, as an elderly woman’s life was savagely taken, but both examples speak of a pattern. French Jews are targeted, attacked and vilified, French politicians scramble to be the first to condemn the latest scandal, but when offenders come to court, the anti-Semitic hatred that motivated their actions is treated as an irrelevant distraction by justice.
And yet, at the same time, French Jews have made visible progress this year in the fight against anti-Semitism. For more than a decade, an alleged comedian named Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has established himself as France’s most heinous and high-profile anti-Semite, mocking the Holocaust and denying it on his live broadcasts and its emissions. But in June, YouTube shut down Dieudonné’s channel, cutting it off from 400,000 subscribers overnight. Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram followed suit in August, highlighting “dehumanizing terms about Jews” used by Dieudonné in his posts. Additionally, similar sanctions have been applied by social media companies to lesser-known anti-Semites, including Dieudonné’s closest comrade, a two-bit thug named Alain Soral who believes himself to be a nationalist intellectual.
These beatings against Dieudonné and Soral have been particularly satisfying, given their long track record of appearing in French courts for Holocaust denial offenses and leaving with a small fine or suspended sentence. He cannot escape noticing that, again, the decisive decisions came from social media companies that are relatively new to the challenges of identifying and addressing anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, French justice continues to look in the opposite direction.
These developments are not limited to France alone. In other countries, including this one, economic and political pressures mean that the social media behemoths are no longer able to deny the content they distribute; instead, they have to watch him more and more. But similar pressure has failed to move the judiciary in France, which treats every instance of anti-Semitism as unrelated to previous ones – a practical approach if you want to continue to deny the crisis that is before you. waits.
The battle against anti-Semitism cannot be fought only on social media, especially in Europe. Jewish communities need recourse to the courts, and courts are the acid test of a country’s determination to protect its minority communities and punish those who attack them. In this regard, France is sorely lacking – and those who argue that this flaw will always be there may, unfortunately, be right.
Ben Cohen is a New York-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.