Storm in a teacup: reponse to Stillman

Dr Paul Gardner

Dr Larry Stillman (‘Free Speech and Intercommunal Conflict’, Liberty News, Issue 3) doesn’t argue the case explicitly, but he seems to imply that the organised Jewish community reacted to the Seven Jewish Children play by seeking to stifle free speech. He offers no evidence to support such an implication. As far as I am aware, there were three forms of response to the play.

First, some members of the community commented critically about what they perceived as the anti-Israel bias in the play. Whether or not the play’s content can be considered as antisemitic — or as potentially promoting antisemitism — can be legitimately debated, but the critics did no more than exercise their freedom of speech. No one called for the play to be censored or banned.

Second, one major Jewish social welfare organisation withdrew its invitation to Miriam Margolyes to be a guest speaker at a function after it learned that she would be acting in the play. It took no action against the play itself.

Third, a group of Jews, mostly university students, took part in a peaceful demonstration outside the venue on the night of the play reading and handed out leaflets. They took no action other than exercising their right of freedom of expression and assembly. So what is Dr Stillman’s problem?

Where is the justification for all those emotive words peppering his piece: ‘free speech’, ‘intercommunal conflict’, ‘pressure’, ‘lobby groups’, ‘very strong response’? Dr Stillman even draws on old and unrelated Greek/Macedonian conflicts to warn of ‘threats of violence’ to bolster his rather unsubstantiated position. The terms ‘straw man’ and ‘storm in a teacup’ come readily to mind.

Dr Gardner is a retired academic and a former chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission.