Freedom of speech, not freedom to intimidate

Britain's exit from the EU has posed many problems, but also offers the opportunity to trade and engage with countries around the world  (Jewish News)
Britain's exit from the EU has posed many problems, but also offers the opportunity to trade and engage with countries around the world (Jewish News)

This week, we witnessed the horrendous abuse directed towards Anna Soubry MP during the course of a live TV interview. Shouts of “Nazi” drowned out her interview and she was subsequently harassed, and her path blocked as she attempted to walk into Parliament in full gaze of the Police who did not intervene. There was public outcry over the increased prevalence of such incidents towards MPs and journalists. This was not an isolated incident, quite the opposite; harassment and intimidation has become de rigeur for many MPs as they walk to and from Parliament as the Brexit issue continues to dominate the public discourse.

Freedom of speech and demonstrations are the bedrock of any democracy, standing outside Parliament vocalising your opinions as MPs enter and leave Parliament is a fundamental right in a free society, but as Ms Soubry pointed out, “the line is very clear between when it is a peaceful, lawful protest and when it is clearly intimidating and it’s designed to intimidate and shut down democracy, shut up MPs, shut up broadcasters”.

As recently as July 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a member of the far right for her pro-Remain views. Rather than being a wake-up call for the rhetoric to be toned down, and for both MPs and members of the public to engage in a more respectful debate, if anything, as the bumpy road to Brexit continues, the rhetoric has become more aggressive from all sides.

Great pride is taken that in Britain we can freely express our opinions and disagree with others in all spheres of society and life. As Jews, this freedom resonates with us particularly, as from time immemorial, Judaism has encouraged and celebrated the difference of opinions as reflected by the debates of our Oral Torah from the likes of Hillel and Shamai – there is historic basis for the old joke “two Jews, three opinions!”

Yet we strive always for disagreement and debate to be carried out with mutual respect and in a constructive fashion, in search of the ultimate truth.

One of the greatest places for societal and political debate has traditionally been on college campuses. Yet, in recent years, the ability to publicly hold different perspectives and opinions, in particular about Israel,  has become more and more challenging, and similar scenes as endured last week by Ms Soubry, are constantly seen in our educational establishments.

Although very sad that this intimidation is now manifesting itself beyond the campus and into the heart of our long established, respected democracy, this may be a wake-up call to British society as a whole, to say yes to freedom of speech, yes to the right to be heard and to demonstrate, but no to intimidation, no to the subjugation of opinions and no to name calling.

Let us hope the outrage heard last week will give the British people pause and allow respectful, honest and open debate in our country and on our campuses once more.

About the Author
Pinchas Hackenbroch is rabbi at Woodside Park United Synagogue
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