Free speech and inter-communal conflict

Dr Larry Stillman

The past year or so has seen pressure from some lobby groups in the Jewish community against a number of public events in Melbourne and Sydney as well as Fairfax media or the ABC for what it claims is anti-Israel bias.    

Most recently, there has been a very strong response to the reading of the play Seven Jewish Children by the pro-Palestinian playwright Caryl Churchill. A similar debate has occurred in the UK and the US over the politics of the play.

The claim of Jewish organisations is that such plays promote anti-Semitism. The claim of those supporting such activity is that the criticism is exaggerated, and that criticism of Israeli politics is not inherently anti-Semitic. They also claim that some of the Jewish community wishes to suppress Palestinian speech rights and actions.

The debate and actions that have followed have brought out the worst opinions on either side, and have done nothing to contribute to inter-communal relations or the cause of free speech.  However, a broader issue is at stake for the multicultural Australian community that goes beyond the Israel/Palestine issue.

From a free speech perspective, how should  Liberty Victoria respond to such controversy?  As other examples, in the early 1990s, the Macedonian and Greek communities were engaged in strong argument and at times violence with each other, and politicians were engaged in partisan support. Another example is the more recent litigation between the Catch the Fire Ministry and the Islamic Council of Victoria, where the Victorian courts were asked to rule over issues of religious defamation and vilification.  

We need to recognise that we do not live in a cultural vacuum and that bald, legalistic responses to critical issues of free speech are not sufficient. It is time that those who wish to defend the principle of free speech be far more involved with different communities, and rather resort to legalistic answers, be engaged with these communities in considering the politics and complexities of living in a diverse and not always tolerant society.

I realise that this is a difficult challenge, but if Liberty’s work is to contribute fully to the diverse society that Australia has become, then we need to be more active in explaining and educating people why  public debate,  rather than community power plays, attacks on all critics, and censorship of other opinions, is so critical. Only through more engaged activity can the cause of free speech be not just understood, but actually influential.

Dr Larry Stillman is a committee member of Liberty Victoria and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.