Germany can carry the banner of free expression without flag burning

These days, Germany cherishes free speech and freedom of the press.

Protestors burn a US flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protestors burn a US flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When freedom of expression edges into flag burning in the United States, particularly as it concerns Old Glory, most Americans are offended and appalled, if not mortified. Despite the disapproval percentage for torching the flag ticking a few points above 60%, according to Gallup polling, burning the American flag is protected by the First Amendment.
So, when Germany recently proposed making the burning of the Israeli and other national flags illegal, the country’s anti-Israel protesters lost a popular and prominent tactic, one that plays vividly to television cameras for the world to see as it did in 2017 at the Brandenburg Gate.
Naturally, this news was fuel to the antisemites of the world whose default position is to protest the false notion of Jews controlling events or exercising power or buying influence. We know these tropes only too well. Many Americans learning about this news in Germany might reflexively wonder about free speech. In the US, flag burning as an expression of free speech won the minds the Supreme Court in the 1969 ruling Texas v. Johnson, (491 U.S. 397).
These days, Germany cherishes free speech and freedom of the press. Considering the history of antisemitism in Europe over millennia and the surge of antisemitism there in recent years, however, it’s clear that anti-Israel sentiment, including the BDS movement, is just one form of antisemitism. Legal precedent in America might be a good enough argument for some in defending flag burning, but much has changed since 1969. Flag burning no longer is reserved for singular events, the nightly news, a film or a front page.
Always staged, flag burning is a form of hate speech as it sparks violence, which typically exceeds free speech protection. In Europe or in most countries that can or are willing to identify Israel on a map, the Israeli flag rightly represents the sovereign Jewish nation, going back 3,500 years. The reason why people burn the Israeli flag is that they disagree with or ignore the facts of history, reject Israel and hate Jews for a myriad of blood libels, which have culminated in pogroms, expulsions and, of course, the Holocaust. This is a mere snapshot of a long, long timeline of sordid inhumanity.
Of course, what the Nazis perpetrated from Germany to poison Eastern Europe from 1933 to 1945 was to exterminate more than six million Jews and five million others. They also brought shame to many nations with hundreds of thousands of loyal Jewish citizens.
So as organizations like B’nai B’rith International confront antisemitism in all of its forms and work constantly to erase generations of hate through education and legislation, even by drafting and building consensus over a definition, one wonders how necessary it is to use inflammatory and incendiary tactics such as flag burning to make a point?
Clearly national flags set ablaze burn hotter and more destructively than speech or the printed word. Images filling television, computer and smart phone screens permanently scar memories. Words can and do raise the temperature among people, but those arguments can be debated in private quarters or public spaces. Thus, visuals are unforgettable; some words are unforgettable, too, but tend to evaporate far more quickly.
Could it be that one way to slow hatred, particularly antisemitism, would be to prohibit such a powerful act as flag-burning? Fires, like hate, are less likely to spread if they don’t burn in the first place.
Lest we forget how fire was used in Germany to spread hatred toward Jews. The mere mention of bonfires of books, grand synagogues, Jewish-owned storefronts, then millions of people conjure up powerful images that we’d just as soon forget, but we must remember and teach others so history won’t repeat itself.
Fire used to burn lives, livelihoods and flags that are all-encompassing, national symbols is not free expression. It is an affront, a weapon, an incitement for physical acts of hate. In this context, one can understand why Johannes Fechner of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), introduced this amendment recently in the German parliament. As Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s justice minister, told The New York Times, “The burning of flags in public has nothing to do with peaceful protest. Burning flags hurt the feelings of many people.” Well, the last part of that comment is an understatement, and one gets the feeling that something was lost in translation. But the fact remains that flag burning does far more than hurt one’s feelings.
Flag burning alone is a powerful image: That’s why people do it. It doesn’t only take place to whip people on the ground into a frenzy or even play to news cameras. Today, flag burning attracts a world of cameras – smartphones – for instant and continuous sharing. With recklessness on full display on social media, freedom of expression is under microscopic scrutiny.
Protests can occur without the burning of national flags. That demonstration is a far different expression and should be made illegal, and the equivalent of the Senate in the German government will have an opportunity in June to advance this measure into law. Perhaps other countries that espouse freedom and harmony, but where extremism is fomenting hate, should take note and follow suit.

The writer is president of B’nai B’rith International.