Across Europe, a rising tide of anti-Semitism is causing lawmakers in the European Union to strengthen existing hate speech laws. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, French protestors took to the streets of Paris parading around signs, some reading “Jews get out” and others flat-out denying the Holocaust.
This is not just an isolated incident perpetrated by a fringe group of anti-Semites. A recent report by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency found that 76 percent of the 5,000 European Jews surveyed noted an uptick of anti-Semitism in their respective countries.
Though the strengthening of hate speech laws may seem to be a reasonable, measured response to Europe’s anti-Semitism problem, it does little to get at the root of the issue. Anti-Semitism comes from centuries and centuries of repression and stereotypes that have plagued the Jewish community for time immemorial.
If anything, the presence of these restrictive laws feeds the anti-Semitic narrative that Jews exert undue control over the world’s governments. While hate speech legislation has admirable aims, its real-world implications are ineffective at best and a threat to civil liberties of all Europeans at worst.
Traditionally, intolerance toward minority groups is not extinguished by restrictions on free speech. Rather, excoriation by the media and political leaders stigmatizes such sentiments until they become unacceptable in public spheres.
The hate speech laws pushed by European leaders are a convenient way for them to condemn their constituents’ anti-Semitism without addressing its shameful persistence. France in particular has seen a surge in hyper-nationalism over the past few years. The movement emphasizes the inherent superiority of French culture.
France’s anti-Semitism is not just limited to demonstrations. In 2012, the murder of three Jewish children and their teacher in Toulouse set off a spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes, including grave vandalism and assault among dozens of others.
Clearly, hate speech legislation is doing little to curb actual hate crimes. All these laws do is criminalize nonviolent – albeit deplorable – rhetoric, while crimes that threaten the safety and livelihoods of European Jews continue unabated.
France’s renewed nationalist streak also targets the country’s Muslim population, which counts 1.5 million members. A major criticism of the hate speech laws is the French courts’ reluctance to extend protections under these laws to Muslim hate crime victims.
While it may seem hard to imagine that such open intolerance would be commonplace in a “progressive” country such as France, the truth is that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia continue to permeate through developed countries, including our own.
Ignorance of Islam dominates America’s collective perception of the religion. If France’s anti-Semitic hate crimes seemed jarring, consider that following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States jumped by 1,600 percent. A 2009 Gallup Poll found that roughly 40 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims.
More than prosecuting hate speech, remaining vigilant in the fight against intolerance is fundamental to preventing the escalation of discrimination. Just because the intolerance in the modern era is not always out in the open and easy to identify does not mean it is not present.