Yom Sheini, 17 AdarI 5781
Monday, 1 March 2021
Don’t react to attacks on freedom by restricting it

January 25th 2015


Reflecting on events in France 200-plus years ago, philosopher and politician Edmund Burke was quoted saying: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Recent events, again in France, bring Burke to mind. Violence and terrorism are not acceptable in the 21st century.

There are many possible responses to the outrages at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket.

The easiest are to cast around for someone to blame, crack down further on the militants and look for ever more restrictive ways to counter terrorism. Such responses would be understandable, but they would be wrong.

For now, at least, France seems set to take a different route: to reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech and liberty and to avoid the trap of restricting freedoms supposedly in its defence.

The rally at the Place de la République was a remarkable statement of defiance, a rejection of violence and an act of solidarity with both Jews and Muslims who for very different reasons have good reason to feel threatened and vulnerable.

We need to be alert to terrorism and to its corrosive consequences. We must learn from these attacks or we risk being Burke’s proverbial “good men”.

The outcry in defence of Charlie Hebdo’s right to cause offence is more than a principled defence of free speech. It is also a practical recognition that our own freedoms depend upon defending the freedoms of others.

Once one legitimises the silencing of opinions that upset us, the right to free speech ceases to be universal and becomes merely the right for the majority to impose its views and mores on the minority.

Over the past year, many in our community have been made to feel uncomfortable by attacks in the media and by others on Israel.

Some have been quick to shout anti-Semitism, with a view to silencing Israel’s opponents. If events of the past week teach us anything, it is that what we have to fear most are not the barbs and accusations of lively debate, but fundamentalists who seek to impose a deadly silence on us all.

The correct response to events in France is not retreat or to seek to silence our opponents, but to reach out, to engage and find common ground.

Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism and a former BBC executive