The attack that killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway over the weekend reflects a pressing need in the U.S. to suppress hate speech, a German peace activist said Tuesday while preparing for a public address at San Diego State University.
“There’s been a rise in anti-semitism in the U.S. and it is due to a political climate that tolerates hate speech,” said Armin Langer, coordinator of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, a grass roots effort in Europe to promote peace among Jews, Muslims and their allies.
“Things won’t get better unless you tackle hate speech. I think there are limits to free speech. I speak from a European point of view. I know that there are different standards in the U.S.”
Langer spoke to about 100 students and faculty on Tuesday while John T. Earnest of Rancho Peñasquitos was being arraigned in San Diego Superior Court on one charge of murder and three counts of attempted murder arising from Saturday’s attack at Chabod of Poway, a synagogue and Jewish community center. Earnest also was charged with a single count of arson stemming from a fire last month at a mosque in Escondido.
He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Langer said the attack reminded him of Robert D. Bowers, who is charged with killing 11 people and wounding seven others during a gun and rifle attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. Authorities say Bowers had expressed hatred against Muslims.
“This is the rise of far right extremism,” said Langer, who is 28. “If a terrorist goes to a synagogue he does not go as a lone wolf in the world. This is the result of something. He does this within a political context.
“(The Salaam-Schalom Initiative) is promoting a counter narrative that this won’t be tolerated. Jews, Muslims and their allies want to live together in peace”
He added that there is nothing wrong with a person or a group being provocative or with using exaggeration. But he said that such things as stigmatizing or delegitimizing people, and minority groups, can be hate speech, and that the U.S. most not accept it.
It’s a touchy issue in the U.S., said Lawrence Baron, the former chair of Jewish studies at SDSU.
“It depends on how you enforce it,” said Baron, who attended Langer’s speech. “They are starting to do this on websites and the Internet and on Facebook. You could reduce a lot of hate speech this way. When you see it flaring into violence, you can intervene.
“But it is hard to know where the breaking point is.”
Baron added that, “We do have a different concept of free speech than they do in Germany, where it is illegal to have a swatstika or to print pro-Nazi literature. There also are laws in France and Germany against denying that the Holocaust occurred. These go so far against our concepts of (free speech) that they’re hard to imagine.
“But we could do a better job on hate speech.”
Greta Voci, a sophomore who studies political science at SDSU, also finds the idea suppressing speech challenging.
“We have a right to our own views — as long as they don’t make people violent,” said Voci, who attended Langer’s talk. “This is a very difficult issue.”
Langer was invited to speak at SDSU following the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh. He is part of the university’s Imagine Europe program, which invites speakers to discuss Europe as being more than a collective of nation-states.
“We never imagined that something like the attack would occur here,” said Kristin Rebein, a professor of German at SDSU. “People are shocked. But they’re coming together.”
The response will include a vigil that will be held at noon Wednesday outside SDSU’s Scripps Cottage.
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