What the United Nations Gets Wrong About Fighting Anti-Semitism | Opinion

With anti-Semitism on the rise, it is fitting that the United Nations recommit itself to eradicating this evil as it commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust. But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's promotion of a "Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech" is nonetheless misguided.

The Strategy encourages states to censor "hate speech" according to vague and subjective standards. This jeopardizes every person's freedom to speak and live according to their consciences, including Jews. In reality, the safest space for religious and racial minorities is a free society.

From its earliest days, the U.N. has debated the wisdom of creating a "hate speech" exception to free speech. The U.S. has consistently led opposition to these efforts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, warned that Soviet bloc demands to crack down on "anti-fascist" speech were "extremely dangerous" and "would encourage governments to punish all criticism under the guise of protecting against religious or national hostility."

In 1948, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, creating protections for everyone to "hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." But the international body has undermined free speech since then. First came Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obligated states to prohibit speech "that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence." Then, in the 2012 Rabat Plan of Action, the U.N. endorsed criminal penalties for speech that leads to "hatred or discrimination."

Despite all the action plans, there is no internationally accepted definition of what constitutes "hate speech." The U.N.'s new Strategy broadly targets:

any kind of communication or speech, writing or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are—in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.

The U.N. encourages member-states and social media companies to work with civil society to identify violations. But without clear, objective standards like "imminent lawless action," none of them can punish "hate speech" without endangering free speech.

Authoritarians abuse speech restrictions to enforce orthodoxy and maintain control. For example, Pakistan quickly embraced the Strategy as a means of combatting "Islamophobia." But Pakistan's record as a leader of a previous U.N. campaign to stop "defamation of religions" does not impress. Indeed, it has harmed minorities.

Far from promoting peace and security, Pakistan's punishment of speech that it deems anti-Islamic has led to more intolerance. Jews have lived in Pakistan since the 19th century. Today, only about 200 Jews remain, and they face extreme hostility because Pakistan has designated Israel an "enemy of Islam."

Recently, the Pakistani press has taken to blaming Jews for the coronavirus, calling it a plot to shut down mosques. What is needed in societies like Pakistan is more counter-speech by and on behalf of Jews, Christians and any person who holds a minority viewpoint. The U.N. has sought to distinguish blasphemy laws from "hate speech" laws, but when authoritarians are empowered to criminalize the speech of those who disagree with political or religious orthodoxy, it inevitably ends in more persecution.

Beyond the question of who decides what hate speech is lies the problem of how they decide. The terms "pejorative" and "discriminatory" do not provide adequate clarity or objectivity to assure that even the most benevolent decision-maker will censor only hateful language. Facebook recently found an Ohio rabbi "guilty" for a post showing Adolf Hitler shaking hands with Paul von Hindenburg, even though it described Hitler as "the most ruthless dictator in recent history."

United Nations building in New York City
United Nations building in New York City Spencer Platt/Getty Images

That a social media giant with both sophisticated artificial intelligence and a slew of human "fact-checkers" should miss the point of the post should discourage human rights advocates and policymakers from pushing social media companies, much less governments, to adopt "hate speech" doctrines.

Even well-intentioned efforts to enlist civil society in labeling hate can have an "anti-Semitic effect," according to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values. He and 100 Orthodox Jewish rabbis wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to stop using the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hate Map" for guidance. Doing so, the rabbis explained, excluded conservative nonprofits from the Amazon Smile charitable gift program simply because they hold traditional beliefs about marriage and the family. The effect was "detrimental and even dangerous to the Jewish community," they wrote.

Finally, it's worth noting that Europe's Holocaust denial laws fail to address the roots of hatred, and have not prevented the growth of anti-Semitic parties in Austria, France and Germany. They may even be counterproductive. Criminal prosecutions give anti-Semites added notoriety and a persecution narrative to exploit.

The U.N. should combat anti-Semitism. Initial efforts to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition make for a step in the right direction. The IHRA definition captures how modern anti-Semitism is often couched in anti-Israel rhetoric, including:

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring Israel to exhibit behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Both the U.N. and all of its 193 member-states should adopt the IHRA definition and act consistently. The U.N. Human Rights Council should cease its biased treatment of Israel, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should retract its "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" blacklist.

Censorship cannot reverse hate. Only more contact with Jews, deeper understanding of the Holocaust and Nazi ideology, and knowledge of Israel's ancient and modern history can change people's beliefs and behaviors. For this to happen, Jews must be able to think, speak and live—in freedom and safety—according to their beliefs. As the U.N. looks ahead to the next 75 years, it is more important than ever for America to point the way back to freedom as the true path to peace and security.

Emilie Kao is the director of The Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Joel Griffith is a research fellow in the think tank's Roe Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.