I am a firm believer in freedom of expression, but free speech ends when hate speech begins. As computer scientist Newton Lee put it, “There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence.”
The subject arose after the last issue of The Jerusalem Report, in which we published an essay by “Joe Biden’s Rabbi,” Rabbi Michael S. Beals, titled “The Delaware Way.” Beals, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, DE, explained that “The Delaware Way is about finding balance and respecting those with whom you differ. To quote the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Delaware Way means ‘disagreeing WITHOUT being disagreeable.’”
The rabbi told the story of his 16-year relationship with the new president from Delaware, voicing the hope that “Biden’s Delaware Way of leadership will bring the polarized United States back together, and who knows, maybe it can work for Israel as well?”
If readers disagree with Beals on Biden, I’m open to publishing substantive arguments for and against his views. But shortly after it was posted on the JPost.com website (as all Jerusalem Report stories are), the Beals essay garnered dozens of hateful talkbacks.
The rabbi was deeply hurt by them. “Your JPost comments page has been filled with personal attacks against me – nothing concrete or constructive – just vicious and cruel,” he wrote. “Please remove the offensive attacks against my person from your platform immediately. I never expected such a hateful response from your readers. I am dismayed and disappointed.”
I immediately asked JPost to remove the offensive comments and apologized to Beals, who assured me that he was not upset with me but rather by “the cruelty of the responses” from readers.
“Disagreement is fine and healthy,” he said. “But hate speech is not to be condoned and The Jerusalem Post must be accountable for creating platforms for hate to flourish. I sincerely believe that press coverage of all the hate speech after Oslo allowed for an environment leading to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Had the hate had nowhere to go – no coverage – then perhaps that law student at Bar-llan would have thought his hateful thoughts but not taken his hateful actions. Media, in this new age of instant publishing, must take more responsibility.... Hatred must not be given any quarter – you can quote me on that.”
Before responding, I sought the counsel of Jerusalem Rabbi David Geffen, who was Beals’ predecessor at Beth Shalom before making aliyah with his family in 1977, and is a regular contributor to the Report.
“I was very excited when Biden was elected president of the United States, being aware that Rabbi Beals knew him personally, even being called by the president ‘my rabbi,’” Geffen said. “The article Rabbi Beals wrote in The Jerusalem Report I found very beautiful. I researched and saw that few other rabbis in American history were so close to a president.
“I recognize that some people believe that free speech means you can say or write anything no matter how it hurts or demeans. I was taught that free speech – enshrined in the US Constitution – is a great virtue in a democratic society because individuals can express their opinions freely. However, what free speech truly means is that we can say what we believe – within limits.”
Those limits were violated in the ad hominem assaults on Rabbi Beals, which are intolerable. I shall do all I can to defend your right to express yourself freely – but not in a hateful way that incites violence. It’s not the Delaware Way and it’s not the way of this magazine.