Charles Asher Small obliterates the wrong target.

On 21 January 2016 the Oxford Union staged a debate with the proposition This House Believes Holocaust Denial Should Not Be Criminalised. As with many such debates it is worth watching in full. I have and so can you, starting by following this link. The first thing you will learn from the first speaker is that both sides of the house are fiercely opposed to holocaust denial; so the debate is purely about the best means to counter it.

My previous post was from a proposition speaker, Deborah Lipstadt. Today we hear from an opposition speaker, Charles Asher Small. Both of these are professors, both Jewish, both vigorous campaigners against antisemitism and holocaust denial. But they are on opposing sides of this debate, which — part from the quality of the speaking — is what interests me.

He has paper on that dispatch box, but he is using it as a security blanket. Often during the first two minutes he looks at it fleetingly, not long enough to read anything but long enough to reassure himself it is there. This is a common hump symptom, but it’s nearly the only one he is displaying. When, at 2:00, he swings into the history of antisemitism he is firmly on his home turf, the hump dissolves and he scarcely acknowledges the presence of the paper again. Now he is clearly shooting from the hip, and is the more compelling for it.

It’s a powerful speech, an impassioned and well-delivered speech, and against the background of historical antisemitism it highlights incidence and danger of antisemitism as it exists today. That last, inasmuch as it might educate his audience, is its strength.

Its weakness is that both sides of the debate already agree on its message.

Criminalising something reprehensible is a blunt instrument. It appeals to our shallowest instincts, but frequently does little more. It is often counter-productive, serving to create martyrs out of offenders. Prof. Small is very effectively feeding our disapproval of antisemitism, and that feeding and spreading of disapproval is far more effective than applying the dead hand of the law to the problem. Furthermore, though antisemitism may be at the root of the problem it is not specifically the subject of this debate which is about the criminalisation of holocaust denial.

So it’s a very good speech, but not a good debating instrument. Professor Lipstadt, on the other hand, gave us technical legal examples of how criminalising holocaust denial can impede the fight against it. That is why I am not in the least surprised that the motion was carried. Professor Lipstadt’s team won.

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