Free speech and hate speech


Paul Berger begins his May 5 online article for the Forward with this sentence: “Long written off by mainstream critics as an Islamophobic crackpot, Pamela Geller is winning increasing sums from financial backers with her blood-and-thunder warnings against the religion of Muhammad.”

Berger wrote this piece shortly after Garland, Texas, police shot dead two would-be jihadis – Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34 – who were attempting to carry out a Charlie Hebdo-style massacre at the Curtis Culwell Center.

The two attackers, armed with assault rifles and explosives, were targeting more than 200 men and women attending the deliberately provocative Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest. The sold-out event was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, cofounded in 2010 by Geller and Robert Spencer.

Geller, writing in the May l6 issue of Time magazine, insists that the Garland event was a “free-speech conference.”  “Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

“Putting up with being offended is essential in a pluralistic society in which people differ on basic truths.  If a group will not stand for being offended without resorting to violence, that group will rule unopposed, while everyone else lives in fear.”

I do not deny that Geller is a strong advocate for free speech, but she is also a strong advocate for hate speech.  Under the banner of constitutionally protected free speech, she obtained the right to run hate-speech ads on public transportation systems in New York, Boston and Philadelphia: “Islamic Jew Hatred.  It’s in the Quran.”  “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.  Support Israel.  Defeat Jihad.”

As a Jew, I find Geller’s so-called advertisements despicable. In addition to deliberately subjecting Muslim Americans to these in-your-face insults, she is perversely implying that Jewish identity necessitates hatred of the Quran and that support for Israel requires condemnation of Muslims, who are inherently “savage.” True, in her Time magazine piece, Geller writes that “Islamic law, as it’s interpreted by its extremists, forbids criticism of Islam, the Quran and Muhammad.” The problem is that in much of her speaking and writing, she omits the qualifying phrase, “as interpreted by extremists,” and paints all of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims with the same broad brush of her fear and intolerance.

Geller’s words and deeds continue to generate much heat but little light.  What follows is a conversation I “overheard” on an email chain that appeared uninvited in my inbox on May 5-6. I am quoting verbatim three individuals: The person who speaks against Pam Geller’s activities in Garland I identity as CON, while I identify the two who support Geller as PRO I and PRO II.

CON: “It’s just not right to denigrate another’s prophet and make a spectacle of it.”

PRO I: “I see.  So murderous Jew and general infidel hatred, misogyny and the crushing of free speech and conscience are to be allowed to run amok in cowering silence because a religio-political creed’s ‘prophet’ advocated these things, and his votaries still abide them, encouraged by that creed’s leading authorities?

“In the 1950s, humorists with their heads screwed on properly understood  that Communist and Islamic totalitarianism were strikingly similar so they modified the Islamic confession of faith (‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet’) to the following Communist version: ‘There is no God and Karl Marx is his prophet.’”

CON: “Ms. Geller’s organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, made it as an active hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center, alongside such illustrious organizations as the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood.

No thanks, Freunde.”

PRO I: “Excuse me pal but the SPLC is itself an utterly fraudulent avatar of calumny and hate.”

CON: “Look, you just do not denigrate a religious belief.  That gives the denigrated religious group grounds for what might be their inherent hateful inclinations.”

PRO II: “Think of the prohibition related to the image of Muhammad as a symbol for all the rest of Islamic Law that we are not supposed to transgress.  It’s simply a test case.  Bow to it or not.”

CON: “Muhammad may be all they have. What do you hope to achieve by ridiculing Muhammad?”

PRO II: “Do you know what Muhammad did to the Jews of Medina in 627?  Killed 600-800, took their daughters and wives as sex slaves, appropriated their property.  This would not be so bad, but for the sad fact that he is worshipped as the model human and Muslims are supposed to imitate his behavior.  A problem, no?”

CON: “I know all about Muhammad.  So your answer is to encourage cartoons of him.  You are not thinking.  You are further empowering the legacy of his evil.”

This email exchange reinforces my view that Geller manages to bring out the worst in others: so much venom.  Such a travesty of historical oversimplification.  As if almost 1500 years of Muslim experience can be reduced to talking points, to easily digested sound bites. 

In United States v. Rabinowitz (1950), Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter states: “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” 

It seems to me that Pam Geller is not a very nice person.  Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of our American experience that this Islamophobic hate-monger – though her words and deeds be profoundly misguided – might be bolstering the safeguards of one of our most precious liberties: the liberty to say what we want.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at