For myself, I’ve always believed that the best antidote to hate speech is more speech.
Two seemingly disparate and discordant news items appeared in my Facebook feed recently, and they got me thinking. So much of our experience in society is a struggle for supremacy — of status, especially, but more importantly, of ideas — and we seem to be hell-bent on finding moral certitude amidst the cacophony of competing values.
Think I’m wrong? Take the case of the uproar over the welcome letter sent by University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison to this year’s incoming freshmen.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison told the freshman class.
The move was applauded by many, but it was also reviled by those who see a special type of campus-based political correctness as a bulwark against abhorrent views. It’s noteworthy that the policy change occurred at one of the nation’s most liberal universities.
In light of the continued presence of such groups as Students for Justice in Palestine and other organizations supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, it would be worthwhile to ask just what types of views will now be protected by Chicago’s anti-safe spaces rule.
Jewish students, especially pro-Israel ones, have long felt that their views were not only marginalized on American campuses, but outright attacked — by other students, for sure, but also by faculty members. They would seem to be a group likely to benefit from a safe spaces program, whether at Hillel, a Chabad House or some other Jewish center.
For myself, I’ve always believed that the best antidote to hate speech is more speech. And our young adults are going to need to be able to not only develop their own views and beliefs, but defend them as well, in order to survive in the cerebral melting pot that is Western society.
Which brings me to that next news item, an article in Tablet Magazine by Liel Leibovitz titled “Dear Social Justice Warriors: Your Religion is Progressivism, not Judaism.” Leibovitz caused quite a stir with this particular sentence when it made its way across social media: “Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.”
Most of the article is directed against our liberal brethren, whom Leibovitz take to task for conflating such imperatives as tikkun olam with the larger belief structure represented by Judaism. He clearly has a point, but it could be equally applied to anyone who professes to dictate a vote, policy or worldview on what Judaism demands. I’ve seen just as many people apply a divinely-inspired approval to the candidacy of Donald Trump as I have those who say that voting for Hillary Clinton is “the Jewish way.”
I question anyone — perhaps even Leibovitz — who tells others what Judaism is or isn’t without the humility and knowledge necessary to recognize that when you get right down to it, Judaism doesn’t have an answer to such questions as assault weapons bans and immigration reform other than to provide a rubric through which to weigh the issues.
Just whose Judaism do we practice, anyway? Is it mine? Is it yours? Is it ours? Is it theirs? Is it our ancestors’? Is it our children’s?
Most of those grappling with these questions, with the meaning of Judaism and its demands of their lives are those returning to campus this week. But we also would do well to be a little less certain of religious-based policy prescriptions and a little more certain of the fact that a sure path — if not the surest path — to perfecting the world is the collective acts of individuals perfecting their own lives. We could all be a little more tolerant, even as we defend the religion, homeland and people we hold so dear.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].