By Jonathan S. Tobin
Many Americans know that the sickness at the heart of our political culture stems from a spirit of intolerance that has become the keynote of discourse. Liberals blame it on President Donald Trump and his supporters. But few of us seem able to recognize this behavior when it comes from those who share our views — which means that if you think Dennis Prager must be boycotted or believe Morton Klein is as much of a threat to American Jewry as Islamist terrorists, then don’t blame Trump for how bad things have gotten.
Prager, a Los Angeles-based talk radio host and author, is a surprising candidate for this kind of opprobrium. Though he’s a conservative who, to the dismay of some of his admirers, believes Trump must be supported against his critics, Prager is far from the prototype of right-wing incendiary. His approach is generally fair-minded and never lacks intellectual rigor. He has also spent much of his career promoting interfaith dialogue and is as interested in helping his audience focus on personal happiness as he is in politics. In other words, he’s the polar opposite of the bomb-throwing populists that many on the left think are threatening democracy.
But that didn’t spare Prager from being treated as if he were the head of a hate group when he agreed to help raise money for the Santa Monica Symphony by appearing as a guest conductor at a concert. Prager is a music enthusiast/amateur conductor and has often appeared in a similar capacity with other ensembles. But when some of the musicians heard Prager was the attraction at a high-profile event for their organization, they said they would boycott the concert.
A petition started by two UCLA professors who are violinists in the orchestra said the signers would not appear with a “right-wing radio host who promotes horribly bigoted positions.” To back up that claim, they cherry-picked a few comments Prager has made about Islam and the implications of gay marriage in order to falsely paint him as the moral equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. One boycotter even said he’d play with a North Korean conductor, but not Prager.
Prager’s positions can be debated, yet to take them out of context is deeply unfair, especially when you consider it wasn’t long ago that both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton shared his stance on gay marriage. But if you are going to anathematize someone like Prager and render him an untouchable even in a non-political context, you’re saying anyone who voices an opposing view must not only be shunned, but also be driven from decent society.
The same spirit animated an op-ed in The Forward by Steven Davidson. The piece was a response to commentary from the right about the left’s willingness to excuse hatemongering from Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American anti-Israel activist, because of shared antipathy for Trump. According to Davidson, there are 19 people who are more dangerous to the Jews than Sarsour. But while his list included some who do fit that bill, like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and the heads of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, he couldn’t resist including mere political opponents along with terrorists.
It was bad enough that he lumped Trump as well as White House aides Steve Bannon — who left last week — and Sebastian Gorka together with Farrakhan and Hezbollah, in an unconvincing effort to label them as anti-Semites. But he also listed Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Most liberals don’t agree with Klein about the peace process and consider him a strident figure. But he is someone who works hard to build support for the Jewish state, and his views are actually more in tune with mainstream Israeli opinion than those of The Forward’s editorial board. Treating him as a threat to the Jews rather than just someone to be opposed is a signal that any deviation from liberal orthodoxy will be punished with isolation and demonization.
In a world in which Google can fire an internal critic in the name of “diversity,” it’s hardly surprising to see Jewish liberals playing the same game. But those who refuse to listen to or to associate with political opponents are at the core of our society’s current political illness, in which we have been divided into two warring camps that have lost the ability to listen to each other. That’s why if you think there’s nothing wrong with the treatment given to Prager and Klein, then don’t bother the rest of us with hypocritical complaints about Trump.
Jonathan S. Tobin is a former editor of the Jewish Exponent and is the opinion editor of JNS.org, which provided this article.