Last month, the World Jewish Congress held its Plenary Assembly in Hungary to discuss the recent rise of neo-Nazism in Europe. Like a shadow of Europe’s past, Hungary’s third largest political party, Jobbik, staged an anti-Jewish gathering before the Assembly convened, similar to when Hitler aimed hate-filled messages at Jews. The Jobbik party’s leader said before his supporters, “We are special here in Europe, but not because we are the most anti-Semitic nation, but because that … even if all of Europe licks their feet … we will not”. His words echo the chilling sentiment towards those who were yelled at during an anti-Jewish gathering staged last year in Hungary, when “Death to the Jews!” was heard across the crowd. This hate is real and is seen evidently on the streets and in the government of Hungary today.
Even more terrifying is the Jobbik party’s pretense of seemingly altruistic sentiments that it uses to justify its blatant discrimination. One of Jobbik’s MPs for example, called for a list of Jewish government members who could pose a threat to national security. Later however, he clarified that his plan was rooted in a need to keep the nation safe from Israel – a predominantly Jewish country that he explained, “commits genocide 24 hours a day”—and Israel’s citizens who also have Hungarian citizenship. This explanation coupled with his initial indiscriminate call for Jewish names implies that Jews in general and not just dual Israeli-Hungarian citizens, pose a threat to national security. Underneath the surface of an idea that appeared to be warranted by the need to keep Hungarian people safe, there was a gratuitous targeting of a religious group that has been used as a scapegoat before.
Fortunately, Hungary has made changes to its constitution and the hate speech won’t be tolerated. However, these zero tolerance policies, which also include the banning of Nazi symbols, were nuanced when the country partially banned the use of communist symbols as well. Not only has the Jobbik party presented its anti-Semitism as just another political stance and not a religious prejudice but Hungary’s ruling party has also aligned the seriousness of the threat of Nazism with the expression of communism. The thought of a government suppressing the political expression of communists would likely be perceived as an undemocratic attack on one’s freedom of expression in the West. We must remember that just as Hitler had once convinced a nation that Jews were the enemy, American politicians have also convinced a nation that communists are the enemy – the ensuing actions of which are today, often considered a demagogic witch hunt. Hungary may be regressing into both Europe’s and America’s dark past and its partial ban on Nazi and communist symbols then begs the question: At what point do we deem an ideological stance threatening enough to subvert democratic principles like political self-determination and freedom of expression?
Last year, our own government seemed to provide its answer to this question with Bill C-304. This bill calls for the revocation of section 13 of the CHRA, which protects identifiable groups from hate speech. This bill will protect some groups’ rights and freedoms, which include Canadian neo-Nazis who cheered on the bill. I value our freedom in Canada; I value human rights; I value the fact that I can hold conservative, liberal or even communist views in this country. It is because of this that I can understand why truly democratic countries would condemn Bill C-304.
Maintaining a democracy is a balancing act that requires protecting everyone’s rights by weighing them against one another. Bill C-304 does not simply uphold our right to freedom of expression; it may grant some groups this right but it directly denies vulnerable groups their rights. This bill guarantees that certain groups will be subjected to an environment that (to a certain extent) condones their marginalization on account of their religion, gender, race or some other category. Bill C-304 does not uphold democracy but undermines it by contributing to speech that has the power to create inequality amongst people. It communicates to vulnerable groups that their protection is not as valuable as the protection of the hateful messages directed at them. Ideologies, like Nazism, built around the dissemination of hateful and prejudiced messages break away at democracy’s heart – its ethos of tolerance. I believe they necessitate restrictions on our freedom of expression because all they grant us is the right to hate.
As this bill sits before Canada’s senate, considered for law, I only hope that our government keeps Hungary in mind and avoids its position, caught somewhere between a hateful, anti-Semitic political party and one that undermines democratic principles by silencing communists. As a democracy, we will only know that we have truly progressed when our laws grant everyone his or her rights and foster equality.