The three permanent crises in Israel, the trio of open questions, are the Economic, the Cultural-Religious, and the Military-Geopolitical. Now,…
Following a frigid winter which was blamed on the greenhouse effect, the apricot trees of the Judean hills, visible from the Jerusalem Hilton, are in bloom. Gone from the Hilton and also from the King David Hotel are the representatives of American Jewish organizations who hurried over at the end of last year. They were aghast at the outcome of the Knesset elections, and appalled by the prospect that one of the first acts of the new government here would be to write it into law that although our brethren abroad may be doing well, they are pretty poor Jews. The American visitors had a message for our politicians: there was imminent danger of mutiny on the Western front if the Knesset, in a Likud or Labor deal with the rabbis, tampered with the Law of Return.
All that might now seem like ancient history. The headlines in Israel these days are not about midnight meetings between politicians and rabbis to form a government, but about cuts in public spending, price hikes, unemployment, fistfights between Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in what the world knows as the West Bank, pharmaceuticals to be manufactured by Qaddafi, and a new administration in Washington which, right after it takes care of the deficit, will be free to cooperate with the PLO in the search for peace. The only story held over, it would seem, is the Palestinian uprising—not a mile from the King David, euphoric Arab kids are throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Jewish buses.
The rapid changes in the headlines are as typical of this country as they are deceptive. It’s true that to live here is to belong to the Crisis-of-the-Month Club. But anyone who holds out for more than a few years comes to realize that all the crises in Israel can be classified under three main headings, and every apparently fresh crisis is really only the latest installment of one which previously simmered down or was upstaged.
The three permanent crises, the trio of open questions, are the Economic, the Cultural-Religious, and the Military-Geopolitical. They can be visualized as three pots cooking on a single stove, any and all liable to boil over at any time. Practically the only function of an Israeli government is to attend to the pot closest to spilling onto the floor. The Cultural-Religious pot, having boiled up as never before and brought those American Jewish VIP’s flying over, is bubbling peacefully now, thanks to the formation of another so-called national-unity government. To forget this particular pot would be tempting. It would also be a profound mistake. For not only does the Cultural-Religious question remain open—contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the crucial one.
This question is crucial, and very old. How we Israeli Jews finally answer it, or continue to beg it, will largely determine how we allocate the wealth we make or are granted, and how we pursue or steer clear of the vision or chimera of peace with the Palestinians. Anybody who hopes to understand what might pit us against each other and against our brethren in Exile, as well as what, until now, has bound us strongly together, could therefore do worse than put away the newspaper. He would do well to look back, not just a few months, but all the way to Israel’s first exercise in democracy.
The skullcapped parties in the 1949 elections ran together. No fewer than four of them combined—the two factions of Mizrahi (“Spiritual Center”) and the two factions of Agudat Yisrael (“Israel Association,” Israel signifying nothing nationalistic, but rather all the descendants of Jacob, who was renamed after wrestling with the angel). Mizrahi’s bosses and voters were the observant, usually clean-shaven Jews who had always gone along with the unbelieving Zionists in the land of Israel. Those of Aguda were the bearded, black-coated people whom the foreign press here calls the ultra-Orthodox and who until a few years before had shunned the Zionists and their institutions like the plague. In 1949 this unified list garnered a little over 12 percent of the popular vote, or 16 Knesset seats out of 120. But its unity was ephemeral. By the next elections, in 1951, it had splintered into its parts, with Mizrahi, revamped into the National Religious Party (NRP), winning 10 seats, and the anti-Zionist Aguda five.
But can a party which goes into the Knesset truly be religious? Or anti-Zionist? No and yes.
The anti-Zionism of Aguda was and is no accident. Its founders, rabbis all, understood as early as 1912, when they gathered in the Polish town of Katowice, that by striving to revolutionize and normalize Jewish life, and reintroduce us collectively into the family of nations, the Zionists were dispensing with the messiah and menacing Judaism as Judaism had been adapted to the Exile, especially in Eastern Europe. This Judaism, this culture, had first been placed on the defensive by rumors of Enlightenment and Emancipation. Now came Zionism. The basic facts are fairly common knowledge today, even among American Jews. What is less well-known is that until almost all the Jews in Eastern Europe were exterminated, Aguda was—in spite of Zionism, Communism, Bundism, socialism, and assimilation—maybe the most popular party among them, based as it was and is on the great hasidic dynasties.
Though almost none of their flocks survived the Nazis, more than a few of the leading hasidic rabbis, and with them this anti-Zionist ideology, did. Those rabbis who escaped, and didn’t settle in Brooklyn, came here, where they began reconstituting their power and shattered communities. To do this, it was necessary to get help from the Zionists—help, for example, in bringing the head of the Ger dynasty out of Poland to Jerusalem in 1940. In return for this assistance, the Aguda pragmatically began segregating its ideology from some of its practice. It coordinated with the Zionists for about fifteen years—that is, just before, during, and right after the extermination—while clinging to the anti-Zionist faith and continuing to drum it into the heads of its children.
This anti-Zionism was compartmentalized, not watered down. It came out in a thousand telling ways during Israel’s first years. Yiddish, not Hebrew, was what you heard spoken by the strictly-brought-up kids in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem and the Bnei Brak neighborhood of Tel Aviv. They did not show the flag on Independence Day, they did not stand up for Hatikvah, they omitted the prayer for the welfare of the state, and God forbid that they should serve in the army.
Yet the Gedolei HaTorah, the Aguda’s Council of Torah Sages comprising the rabbis and headmasters of each dynasty, instructed the party’s politicians to enter the Zionist parliament. One of these politicians, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, the Gerer rebbe‘s son-in-law, actually put his signature to the Declaration of Independence. This scandalized the super-purists in Mea Shearim, that is, Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City”) and the Satmar Hasidim. The Aguda had to justify running for and serving in the godless Knesset and even joining the government—Levin was Israel’s first minister of the dole. Of course, no politician-rabbi of this stripe was converted to Zionism, if Zionism is the project of “normalizing” the Jews. Nor did the Aguda rabbis confess that their emotions might have gotten the better of them in those heady days when the Jewish state, after nineteen centuries, and only three years after the gas chambers shut down, was resurrected. But it was, to say the least, hard to ignore Israel.
Some of the anti-Zionist rabbis split hairs—they intimated that although the new state could never do the messiah’s job, it might, if it became truly Jewish, prepare the way for him. This was perilously close to the Mizrahi position, to the strategy of stealing Zionism from the Zionists, and it was not put into so many words. The justification offered for getting involved in Israeli politics was pragmatic, not to say fiscal. The notables of Aguda’s ruling council had made up their minds that for the funds for which the Jewish state could be milked, and which they needed for the schools and soup kitchens of their poor, maimed communities, supping with the devil was acceptable.
Satan appeared in the person of David Ben-Gurion, Zionist hero and Israel’s first Prime Minister. Here was a Jew who put all his considerable energy into the forging of a New Jew, one without skullcap or earlocks, a Jew who would use Hebrew in the street, who would eat whatever he liked, who would know much of the Bible by heart but none of the Talmud, who would read Plato in the original and do yoga, who would be a farmer, a cop, a scientist, a soldier in his own nation-state. BG was a hard-nosed kind of visionary. Unlike Martin Buber up at the Hebrew University, he was blessed with a biography and an ideology preempting sentimentality about the black coats. He knew they were not picturesque and heartwarming. Nor were they all gentle—in the old days, Ben-Gurion and his Zionist friends had at least once been set upon and thrashed by Hasidim in Poland. Yes, these people from the beginning had been, with the Jewish Communists and most of the Reform rabbis, among the nastiest, most resolute adversaries Zionism faced, both in Eastern Europe and in the land of Israel.
If Aguda’s official motives for dealing with him were pragmatic, so were BG’s for dealing with it, and above all for granting its yeshiva students exemptions from his beloved Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Truculent visionary that he was, he was also, until he grew very old, a skilled politician, and he said he wished to avoid unnecessary wars among Jews at a time when the Jewish state was very young and had a lot on its plate. He hated the proportional system of electing the Knesset, repeatedly trying and failing to reform it. But if coalitions had to be made, he argued, it was better to make them with rabbis to the Right of him than with the Stalinists to the Left or with that man Begin. This was BG’s oft-repeated reason for agreeing to the so-called “status quo” in religious matters.
But the question which poses itself and which it is impossible to answer is whether BG was absolutely immune to sentiment, whether his heart did not also move him a fraction. For something all too human happened forty years ago to some Zionists who had fled the embrace of the Eastern European Jewish hamlet, the shtetl, forty years before that. They let down their guard before the pathetic remnants of that world.
The Zionist founders in Palestine were flinty, they burned with a gemlike flame, they were extremists or they were nothing. There were more than a few good haters among them, maybe because, like it or not, more than a few had impeccable hasidic pedigrees. Yet one way or the other, such heroic types could never get the murdered world of the shtetl quite out of their reflexes and their reveries. It was the world, after all, of their grandfathers and grandmothers, and of their own childhoods, and as much as it had stifled and sickened them, causing them as young men and women to take off for Palestine, now that they were young no longer, and now that that world had been destroyed, some (like BG’s comrade, Zalman Shazar, who was to be Israel’s third President and who now revealed sympathies with the Habad movement of the Lubavitcher Hasidim) were sufficiently human to relent. What harm could the black-coated, white-bearded folk do now? They were leftovers, remnants. More conclusively and horribly than any Zionist dreamed, history had shown the rabbis’ way to be wrong and Zionism’s right.
Of course, Ben-Gurion was no closet Hasid. If he was really nostalgic for anything, it was for the days of Joshua, King David, and Isaiah, not the muddy lanes of Plonsk. His obsession was to recreate the Jewish state in the land of Israel. To this end, he would have to galvanize, coax, and bully the Jews. For such a singleminded brute, he displayed, depending on how you look at it, great flexibility, cunning, or opportunism. Although he could treat the seventeen centuries between Bar Kochba’s revolt against Rome and the first Zionist congress as so much lost time, he could also write, in a letter to Mizrahi members of the Knesset in 1950, “Even for a freethinking Jew like myself, our faith is still something that commands respect, and any Jew who does not revere Judaism in one way or another is alien to Jewish history.”
From another politician, this could be written off as pure unctuousness. With BG, it must have been in some measure at least sincere. Whatever he sometimes said, he seems to have known that the culture of those seventeen centuries also constituted a portion of the new state’s inheritance which it would be foolhardy to try to renounce. The negator of the Diaspora was not above quoting nuggets from the Talmud himself, for example the platitude that “the Jews are sometimes like the stars, and sometimes like dirt.” Meanwhile, there were professors at the Hebrew University in those early years of Israel, superb scholars, excellent Zionists, winners of government grants and prizes, who devoted their lives to studying aspects of Judaism—Gershom Scholem, tracing the continuity between some of its myths and some of Zionism’s, was only the most illustrious of these unbelieving intellectuals. They, however, only looked deeply into this cultural baggage and inheritance. They did not live it. So long as everyone else had his mind on the future, and on the Bible, no harm would be done if BG acceded and allowed several hundred “ultra-Orthodox” boys to be excused from the IDF in order to sit and hit the holy books day and night.
Hebrew knows nothing of the “ultra-Orthodox.” Instead, Israelis usually refer to them by their own name for themselves—haredim. A passable translation would be “fundamentalists.” A better one would be “Zealots for the Law,” the Law being, of course, not the law of the Zionist land, a hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon, Ottoman, and Napoleonic legislation interpreted in the highest instance by the Israeli Supreme Court, but the Halakhah, the commandments and rules handed down in the desert, elaborated in the Talmud, and codified most recently by Joseph Caro in the 16th century.
The original haredim were Ashkenazi (of European origin). Now there are haredim of the Sephardi (Asian- and African-origin) variety also. The costume of the Ashkenazi haredim is more or less that of the Polish nobility of the 17th century. They are also known, less than affectionately, as shechorim (“blacks”) and dossim (“religious”), the latter epithet being the Ashkenazi pronunciation of dati’im (see below). The demographers say that the fruitful haredim by now make up about 10 percent of the Jewish population of Israel. They predict that the percentage will continue rising.
Next come the dati’im. They are another 10 percent and correspond roughly to what are known in the Diaspora as the Orthodox, for example the faculty of Yeshiva University in New York. In principle, and sometimes practice, the dati’im bear the yoke of Halakhah as conscientiously as any hared, observing the same 613 commandments. They are, however, Zionists, maybe the most fervent Zionists going today, being the current generation of those observant Jews who worked hand in glove with Ben-Gurion.
Theirs is a brand of Zionism, let it immediately be added, that repudiates normality for the Jews. They wear the knitted skullcap, serve in the IDF, reside outside the self-imposed ghettos, and study not only holy but workaday subjects. The dati’im, like the haredim when you get to know them, are not so homogeneous as they may at first seem. They range from the mild-mannered doves in the new Meimad (“Religious Center”) party which did not quite make it into the Knesset, to the gun-toting, messiah-intoxicated settlers whom the foreign press, not to mention our local journalists, loves to hate.
Yet on the whole it is true that the dati’im have been, in the colloquial Hebrew, “going black.” This does not mean that they have been putting on gabardine—though there are stories of some leaving the pro-Zionist yeshivas to join the haredim. It means that a certain mind-set has been making inroads into the younger dati generation. This mind-set signals itself in costume—luxuriant beards, larger skullcaps. It cherishes very particular, very ancient ideas about the world, about reality, about the Gentiles, and about Jews who have shrugged off the yoke.
If the older generation of dati’im, graduates of German universities, appreciated Goethe, their sabra (Israeli-born) grandsons have not heard of him, and tend to think that the outside world possesses nothing of value. In this they resemble more the haredim than the professors at Yeshiva University. A Gentile is an anti-Semite. A Jew who thinks otherwise is, at best, pitiful. The Law of Return needs to be corrected. And the United States—like Babylon, Athens, and Rome of vivid memory—is the great cultural enemy, the wellspring of every contemporary abomination from pornography to democracy, from intermarriage to rock. “Dizengoff” is the pejorative of these devoted young Israelis for their countrymen who have nothing else to do with their lives than ape America.
The reference is to Tel Aviv’s main drag. Dizengoff Street on Friday nights jumps until the wee hours with movement, light, cars, motorcycles, music, food, Arab waiters, Swedish au pairs. Couples neck, and pork, renamed basar lavan (“white meat”), is on the menu. The bookstores carry everything from Lao-tse to Tom Wolfe. The boutiques are chic, the side streets house Israel’s best art galleries, the beach is three blocks distant. Do the crowds of young and old, conversing and shouting in Hebrew, Polish, English, and Russian, make up the country’s “secular” population?
There is a word in Hebrew for secular—hiloni. If the Kulturkampf here worsens, it may become another term of abuse. In the meantime, it is relatively value-free. Our thousands of years of infighting have, in any case, provided a stockpile of many more stinging labels to stick on Jews who conduct themselves as they should not. Kofrim (“apostates”) is a good one, apikorsim (“atheists”) is also good, smolanim (“leftists”) has become a standby. But secular? Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, appointed by the British the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and together with his rabbi son the inspiration of the skullcapped settlers, once said that there was simply no such thing as a secular Jew—in every Jew, no matter how far lapsed, a divine spark glimmers.
Be that as it may, the pollsters report that some 35 percent of Israelis today, most of them Ashkenazi, consider themselves secular Jews, whatever that is. Furthermore, decals proclaiming Ani Hiloni Hared have been popping up on windshields—a play on words meaning, “I’m a worried secularist.” And the sublimest heretic in Jewish history has an annual conference on secular humanistic pluralism named after him, which convenes now in Jerusalem, now in Tel Aviv, now in Haifa.
These Spinoza symposia are paid for, like much else in Israel, by one of America’s many Jewish millionaires. The events are organized by Yirmiyahu Yovel, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and a former talk-show host on Israel TV, who wants to see whether, on the battlefield of ideas, a secular, humanistic, pluralistic brand of Zionism cannot still vie with religious fundamentalism. The way Yovel, who spends his vacations riding horses in France, understands and promotes it, the modern faith takes man as the measure and leaves him to be guided by reason. Having been (in this reading) probably the first Jew to suffer anathema for being reasonable, Spinoza makes an appropriate patron saint for these high-powered get-togethers.
The audiences are much the same as at Peace Now rallies—bareheaded Ashkenazim with university degrees, usually in the humanities or one of the “caring” professions. The speakers are Israelis like the novelist A.B. Yehoshua, the publisher Gershom Schocken, the playwright Yehoshua Sobol. Also present are guests from the melting pot, such as Saul Bellow and Michael Walzer. The American Jews give their talks in English. The locals speak Hebrew—a juicy, sinewy, refined, allusive, intense Hebrew. These conventions, which manage to fill no more than a medium-size lecture hall, offer some proof of the reserves of energy, stamina, and loyalty of an Israeli subgroup which these days usually seems simply demoralized and alienated.
Israel is the land of seminars. Unlike some, the Spinoza is more than a festival for the converted. True to his professed principles, Yovel brings on the sharpest objectors and skeptics to pose the hardest questions they can. It goes without saying that no hared would be caught dead at such a gathering. No hared, however, could pose harder questions to the secularist faithful than their unlikely idol, the eighty-six-year-old scientist Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And even when the skullcapped Leibowitz is not on the rostrum, the devil’s advocates and the opposition are expected to go all-out.
Shmuel Schnitzer, bareheaded columnist of the daily Ma’ariv, demands to know of panelists and audience exactly what the secularism of Jews is supposed to be. He can understand what it negates, what it is not, but for the life of him he cannot imagine what it has to offer, what its positive content is, how it is different from secularism plain and simple. He hopes to be enlightened. What are its norms of behavior, private and public? How can a state calling itself Jewish be run according to it? The organizers say they are Zionists. That’s good. But can Jewish nationalism be divorced from religion? Can a secular Jewish faith reproduce itself over the generations? And anyway, is pluralism good for the Jews? Has it really been all that good for them in America?
Schnitzer’s challenge is taken up by Yovel and others, who give answers as plausible as they are familiar. A secular Judaism, it is said, is one which retains and fosters the values of Judaism, or at least some of them, but without the regulations and mystifications—it holds on to the baby, as it were, while throwing out the bathwater. Such an approach, the secularists go on, is particularly valid, and possible, when a Jew is at home in his own country and not in Exile. If it be objected that this is no longer Judaism, well, history shows that Judaism is what Jews make of it—including a Jew like Baruch Spinoza. In any event, practically speaking, an Israel run the other way, according to Halakhah, would first turn off most of the Jews in the world, and then tear itself apart with wars among the rabbis. Schnitzer listens, one eyebrow raised.
To all these old, brightly burning questions are added the new ones. Professor Eliezer Schweid, a dati versed in secular subjects, asks without sneering why the supposedly secular Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and Bialik and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Herzl, on which the audience has been weaned, has fallen to its present estate. Why is there a younger generation of Israelis which, knowing nothing and believing in less, is a prey to fundamentalism? Is it maybe the secularists’ own fault? Is there something missing from their program, some knowledge or emotion which, if not the rootless Herzl, then Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, and Gordon themselves, who were steeped in rabbinical Judaism before they reacted against it, never lacked?
Spinoza argues that the best thing is to love God, though God could not care less. This is icy stuff. Discussions on Spinoza are not about to become a mass phenomenon in the Jewish state. Yet some of the anxieties of the hiloni Ph.D.’s are shared by the man in the street. This is thanks to the fact that the Friday-night crowd on Dizengoff is almost as variegated as Israel itself. In it you find not only hilonim, not only Ashkenazim who vote for Labor, Shinui (“Change”), the Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam, and parties farther to the Left, but both Sephardim and Ashkenazim who vote for the Likud and factions farther to the Right. Desecrating the Sabbath, they motor into the heart of the urban sprawl to unwind, and if queried, many would hotly deny that they are secular, describing themselves rather as traditional—something known as masorti.
This is a category to which the surveys say the largest number of Israeli Jews belong, something like 45 percent. The masorti category, mainly though not exclusively Sephardi, implies a multitude of contradictory habits. The Israeli who regards himself as such may, for example, walk to the synagogue on the morning of the seventh day, and then drive to a soccer game in the afternoon to yell himself hoarse. He’s eclectic. This Jew, no fan of the Left, has lately been coming to realize that if the dati’im and haredim, whom he continues to respect much more than he does the hilonim, get their way, he will be deprived of his soccer match on the day of rest, and maybe all days—sports and circuses have no place in a Jewish theocracy.
The amorphous, intermittently aroused Center in Israel also counts these people. The issues on which they may be mobilized have to be close to home—the Law of Return, “Who is a Jew,” the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative rabbis, and other such problems, are far too remote. In Jerusalem, for example, the pure-Ashkenazi Citizens Rights Movement and the Vienna-born Mayor Teddy Koliek, recently reelected, were able to make common cause with the city’s soccer fans, Likudniks and Sephardim almost to a man, to petition the Supreme Court and get a decent sports stadium built. The project had been held up for fifteen years by the haredi parties.
Other issues may crop up. One is the exemption of haredi young men from the army—the 400 yeshiva students excused by BG in his germinal deal with Aguda have multiplied to 20,000. The hiloni is more apt than the masorti to consider this a national disgrace. Respectful of something known as tradition, mindful of its many uses, the masorti allows that they also serve who only sit and learn the Talmud. Yet how many need do this? The knowledge that more than a division of able-bodied youngsters are let off, while their age-mates do three years’ duty, followed by thirty boring and dangerous years in the reserves, scrapes a nerve.
The haredim boast that there are more yeshiva students in Israel today than there ever were in Eastern Europe. If true, this is indeed a startling comeback, one of history’s most curious wrinkles. But hitting the books nonstop is not really in the nature of so many young men, especially not in a country with so much sunshine and non-talmudic excitements. So you have black-coated commandos who spend their Sabbaths throwing rocks at cars, and now there is a gang (Keshet, “the Non-Compromisers”) that has been planting bombs at newsstands selling secular newspapers in haredi neighborhoods. Keshet has also daubed swastikas on Ben-Gurion’s grave. The cops who have to put in overtime when the scholars are throwing stones, and who without fail are called “Nazis” by them, are masorti Sephardim, and they don’t like it.
Without drawing extravagant conclusions from the fact, it may be mentioned that the biggest protest demonstration of recent years, held in Tel Aviv while the politicians and rabbis were huddling last winter, was over the “draft-dodging” of the haredim. It was attended by the usual suspects, but not only by them. Among the retired generals addressing the outdoor meeting was Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, a former chief of staff of the IDF and now head of the far-Right Tsomet (“Crossroads”) party. Raful, dressed in a jogging suit, drew cheers when he said that everyone without exception should have to do some kind of military service.
The anxiety and resentment of the hilonim and not a few of the masortim are usually tempered by the fatalism and irony without which life in Israel is simply too risky. As the government-making talks dragged on last fall, however, the haredim upping the ante and Shamir and Peres taking turns promising them the sky, you could have cut the ill-feeling with a knife. The country’s favorite comedy-and-satire team, Hagashash Hahiver (“The Pale Tracker”), did a skit on Friday-night TV portraying imaginary, black-coated morals police on the beach. It was a sketch in acid, not in the least good-humored, and in Tel Aviv they ate it up. Meanwhile, in real life, at a Jerusalem bus stop, a woman ranted to no one in particular, “For this we came to this country? For this we sacrificed? To turn it all over to the dossim? Who would have thought?” On and on she went, and no one in her captive audience spoke up, except a bareheaded gent who finally protested, “Is that any way to talk?”
“Well,” she said, “aren’t I right?”
“Maybe you are. But why this hatred?”
Sin’a—hatred. In context, this is short for sin’at hinam, itself a code term. A sociologist with a smattering of Hebrew and a little experience of Israel might render sin’at hinam as “free-floating hostility.” But that sociologist would be wrong. Sin’at hinam, as all Israeli schoolchildren no matter what kind of school they go to can tell you, signifies the sharply focused, essentially baseless hatred of Jews for their fellow Jews, which seems endemic among us and which reached its most destructive pitch so far only twenty centuries ago.
The old-time sages of Judaism said that it was as divine punishment for sin’at hinam that the Second Temple was burned and we were cast into Exile. That emotion was the sin of sins. The explanation has been taught for years in all Israeli schools, including the secular ones where, since the late 1950’s, there have been compulsory courses in what BG and his Education Minister, Zalman Aranne, called “Jewish Consciousness.” It remains to be seen how effectively the cautionary tale of sin’at hinam has been internalized. What is for sure is that, as a code term, it is universally recognized, even by people who have never read the ancient historian Josephus and do not know the saying, attributed to the late president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, “Give them time, brothers, and they’ll devour themselves.”
The reverse side of our patented genius for survival, in other words, has always been our genius for going overboard, for taking an idea too far, for self-mutilation. The word for it is extremism. It starts with either an idea or an emotion, proceeds to action—prohibitions, bans, excommunications—and in biblical days and later it debouched in such bloodshed as to give the nations pause. Maybe Nasser, no great reader, was told that the savagery of the civil war which we Jews conducted among ourselves in besieged Jerusalem shocked the Romans. The memory of that epochal, self-inflicted catastrophe is alive today among Israeli Jews, as is the vague inkling or clear perception that we carry something in our genes more dangerous to ourselves than to our enemies.
The sovereign remedy for, the best prophylaxis against, sin’at hinam is supposed to be ahavat Yisrael—the loving, forgiving concern of Jews for all other Jews. This too appears in the Israeli curriculum. It is, however, a concept loaded with religious overtones, so in secular schools, as part of the Jewish-values classes, it is transmuted into ahdut ha’am—national unity. Either way, these are grand concepts, easy cover for hypocrisy. Much more modest is the simple sense of self-preservation—preserve us from ourselves! It operated last year, not without agonies of suspense, and not without help from those American Jewish firemen, to head off a government beholden to the “rabbis.” That was the Center in Israel holding. But Jewish history is too rich in other precedents to be confident about the next time, especially when pockets of extremism in one form or another are to be found across the gamut.
The same Professor Leibowitz who informs the hilonim that their “humanism” is nothing more than egotism, and who used to upbraid the chief rabbis for being BG’s “kept women,” dismisses ahdut ha’am as a “sacred cow.”
Learned, polyglot, wrathful, comfortless, Leibowitz appeals greatly to the somewhat masochistic Peace Now-ers and the alienated hilonim. Is it in part due to the fact that he is a commandment-keeper? Mincing words is not his style—for him, any Jew who does not bear the yoke of the Law is derelict. Certainly the violence of the professor’s language is winning for most of his strange fans. Take, for example, his comment on the perennial idea of changing the Law of Return so that only Jews converted by Orthodox rabbis would be kosher:
Any conversion to Judaism which is not done for its own sake is worthless, no matter who officiates, whether a rabbi who is called Orthodox and gets his salary from the government, or a “Conservative” or “Reform” rabbi who has thrown off the yoke and believes himself to be religious! The very few genuine conversions need no governmental seal of approval, while the production line of casual converts is a moral and religious outrage, a mockery of Judaism!
His audience knows to what he refers—the black American basketballers who have been “converted” by the chief rabbinate so that Maccabi Tel Aviv can field a team of international stature. To hear the religious establishment exposed is especially satisfying to these hilonim when it is done by a man who is himself an observant Jew.
Yet as thrilling as they find his words, few of Leibowitz’s admirers have changed their lives in accordance with them. Few have resumed the yoke which their grandparents or great-grandparents laid down. Few have heeded the professor’s calls to refuse service as reserve soldiers in the occupied territories and to go to jail instead. Cowardice? Or a sense of loyalty, after all, on the part of the Peace Now-ers to the country which so many of them have half-despaired of, and which they fear may have an even slimmer chance if Leibowitz’s extremist remedies are actually applied? For the truest and most dangerous split in Israel is not between Right and Left, or observant and lapsed, but between those who are itching for a showdown and those who could live without it. The so-called “status-quo” rule is the expedient of those who think the better part of valor is to put off any showdowns among Jews.
“Status quo” being one of those Gentile notions for which there can be no good Hebrew translation, it has been taken over into Israeli usage as is. Today it refers to the arrangement made between Ben-Gurion and Aguda in 1947.
In the summer of that year the British announced that they had had enough and the UN sent a commission to Palestine in advance of recommending how to solve the problem between the Arabs and the Jews. There would be the usual hearings. Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, understood the importance of these hearings to the goal of partition and a Jewish state. It would not do if Agudat Yisrael demurred or demonstratively stayed away. He therefore wrote a letter to the Aguda’s Rabbi Levin, signed also by a Mizrahi politician and a non-socialist Zionist politician, which declared that although “it is not [our] intention to establish a theocracy,” the coming state would leave authority over the marriages and divorces of all Jews to rabbinical courts, the Jewish Sabbath would be the official day of rest, kashrut would hold in state institutions, and separate “streams” of education emphasizing Judaism for those who wanted it would be paid for by the government.
This letter, along with the emotions of that period which seem to have swayed even many Jews who had never been enthusiastic about Zionism, was enough to persuade Aguda not to strike any discordant notes at the UN hearings. In fact, as has been mentioned, Rabbi Levin the following year signed the Declaration of Independence, a document hard if not impossible to square with Aguda’s view of Halakhah, vowing as it does to accord freedom of conscience and religion to all citizens of the miraculous new state and equal civil rights to everyone regardless of religion, sex, race, or national origin.
The 1947 letter did not contain the magic words status quo—it would be twelve years before they made an appearance in any official paper. But the apparent agreement thus framed was popularly known as the status quo from the start.
The feelings of the period notwithstanding, however, both the signatories to and the recipient of that landmark letter probably suspected that, once the British departed and the Jews, for the first time in a hundred generations, were on their own, things would not remain nicely frozen. Or maybe, caught up in events, they only understood it implicitly, and it took the half-blind Chaim Weizmann (soon to become the first President of Israel), writing on a mountaintop in Switzerland in 1948, to see clearly what was coming, status quo or no status quo:
I have never feared really religious people. The genuine type has never been politically aggressive; on the contrary, he seeks no power, he is modest and retiring—and modesty was the great feature in the lives of our saintly rabbis and sages in olden times. It is the new, secularized type of rabbi, resembling somewhat a member of a clerical party in Germany, France, or Belgium, who is the menace, and who will make a heavy bid for power by parading his religious convictions. It is useless to point out to such people that they transgress a fundamental principle which has been laid down by our sages: “Thou shalt not make of the Torah a crown to glory in, or a spade to dig with.” There will be a great struggle. I foresee something which will perhaps be reminiscent of the Kulturkampf in Germany, but we must be firm if we are to survive; we must have a clear line of demarcation between legitimate religious aspirations and the duty of the state toward preserving such aspirations, on the one hand, and on the other hand the lust for power which is sometimes exhibited by pseudo-religious groups.
In fact, almost as soon as the invading Arab armies were beaten back in 1948-49, we started fighting among ourselves over the application of the status quo. Shabbat was the official day of rest—but what if, in Haifa, all through the Mandate period, vehicles operated by the Jewish bus cooperative had served the people who wanted to go to the beach on their day off? Would they now have to walk? Kashrut on army bases, of course—but could kibbutzim breed pigs? And how about autopsies? Or mixed bathing at a new swimming pool in Jerusalem? It was hard to say.
There were haredi stonethrowing and arson, hiloni counterprovocations, the riot squad was called in, Jews were teargassed and clubbed by other Jews. The status quo in practice was anything but. It was, at best, a kind of modest social contract whereby the cultural-religious wars would be waged incrementally and not too viciously. At worst, it was a fiction. For the socialist Zionists who had made the new state had one vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful, the various observant Jews had another, and if the former, led none too tamely by BG, were prepared to accommodate, the latter, even in the chummy Mizrahi-NRP, could never take their eyes off the final goal—namely, a state ruled by Halakhah—without betraying themselves.
“Both our people, as a whole, and our religion, in specific, are totally different from all others,” Rabbi Meir Berlin, later Bar-Ilan, head of Mizrahi, had written in 1922. “When we have a state, should anyone try to separate church and state, this will represent not a separation but a contradiction.” So although it was sometimes fudged, the bottom line with the NRP was really the same as with the haredim: an acceptable, grown-up Jewish polity could only be, not one of laws and customs borrowed from here and there, but of the Law. The difference, and not a small one, was that in the coming Jewish state Mizrahi thought to bring the Jews, too many of whom had recently been impressed by Locke, Madison, and Marx, around by example and education, not coercion. “We must modify them gradually,” wrote Berlin, “not by passing laws but by educating the young.”
The hottest issue therefore was not swimming pools. It was the hearts and minds of the Israeli young. Who would teach what to the orphans of the extermination, and to the children of the African and Asian refugees? BG understood as well as anyone that on this issue hinged the character and future of the country. On this he would not budge—if the state was going to pay for the schools, it must have at least some supervision over them, and even the kids learning in the Judaism-stream must be inculcated with Zionism. At that, Rabbi Levin quit the government, and in 1952 Aguda set up its own educational system. It would be twenty-nine years before the haredim sat around the cabinet table again.
So in the revised status quo, there were three streams laving the minds of the first generation of Israelis—socialist, General Zionist, and dati. The largest number of pupils, reflecting the political dominance and cultural ascendancy of the country’s founders, went to the so-called socialist schools. There, when they were not hiking the length and breadth of the land, they were belabored with the ideals which had driven the older generation, plus “Jewish Consciousness,” plus BG’s mamlakhtiut—“statism.”
As long as the founders remained top dogs culturally and politically, it was the kids in the more and more archaically-named socialist stream who could consider themselves the heirs to power. Indeed, while cultural-religious skirmishes could disturb the peace, even bring down governments, they were basically a sideshow until a certain historical dialectic caught up with the world, with Israel, and with Jews everywhere. The status quo in the meantime worked not well, but well enough.
While it did, BG could try to concentrate on the task of making a New Jew. This does not mean that he was not continually required to justify his God-and-Caesar arrangement with Aguda, and especially with the NRP. His motives for giving them such a healthy slice of the pie were, he said again and again to his critics, both pragmatic and broadly historical. If he met the observant halfway, if he gave them their budgets and ritual baths, their schools and chief rabbinate, they would give him a free hand in other, more important matters, such as accepting reparations from the Germans and aligning with the U.S. The way to domesticate the rabbis, he sometimes hinted, was not to shut them out but to bring them in—to coopt them, as we say today. And to those of his party comrades and socialist-Zionist rivals who were pressing for a constitution and unmistakable separation of synagogue and state, BG replied that they were being irresponsible and ignorant at one and the same time.
Irresponsible, because if it was made crystal clear that the infant Jewish state must grow up godless, this would plunge it into a Kulturkampf at the worst possible moment. Ignorant of Jewish history, because, like it or not, with the Jews it was neither easy “to separate the national from the religious aspect,” nor, contrary to what Weizmann seemed to have prescribed, was it advisable to try, certainly not right away. First things first—gather in the survivors and the refugees, make New Jews of their children, green the Negev, summon a couple of million American Jews from their fleshpots, and then worry about writing a constitution. BG had his way on this, thanks as much to the outlook of his countrymen at that time as to his terrifying singlemindedness.
Note that in his Swiss prophecy, Weizmann, a man of the world, did not really come out for a James Madison-type separation of church and state. “We must have,” he wrote ambiguously, “a clear line of demarcation between legitimate religious aspirations and the duty of the state toward preserving such aspirations, on the one hand, and on the other hand the lust for power which is sometimes exhibited by pseudo-religious groups.”
Where exactly should that line be threaded? Should the “duty of the state” simply consist in seeing to it that everyone can worship, or not worship, as he pleases? Or should the state establish an official religion, like the Church of England? Weizmann did not specify. He was intelligent enough to refrain, however, from recommending an American model for Israel. Nor did he stipulate which “religious aspirations” were legitimate, and which illegitimate, other than making a maybe not completely frank distinction between spiritual prestige and political power.
It is not even clear which group of rabbis Weizmann was warning against. Maybe the “new, secularized type” of clerics he had in mind were in the mold of his nemesis, the American Reform rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, orator and Zionist leader. Possibly Weizmann meant the politicos of Mizrahi. Or did he, in 1948, actually foresee that one day the types who had rapped him over the knuckles when he was a schoolboy in a White Russian hole would claim the balance of power in the reborn Jewish state?
For that is how things have regressed or evolved. From being a sideshow on the political scene, the religious anti-Zionists have come to be in a position where, unless there is an electoral reform to curb them, they will continue to be able to prevent either of the country’s two main parties from forming a normal government.
Measured as a proportion of the entire popular vote of Jews and Arabs, or in terms of Knesset seats, the gain for the religious parties as a whole, Zionist and anti-Zionist, has not been tremendous. If in 1949 they got 12.19 percent of the vote and 16 seats, last year they got 15.34 percent and 18 seats. Even this is no record, for as long ago as 1961, the grand total for the religious camp was 15.43 percent and 18 seats. The true story emerges only from a comparison of the subtotals.
While in 1951 the easygoing NRP took 10 out of 15 seats, and in 1961 no fewer than 12 out of 18, by last year the ratio was reversed, and the various haredi parties captured 13 of these 18.
This is a minor revolution. Yet the consequences of it would not have convulsed Israel and Jewry a few months ago, and would not be threatening to do it again after the next elections, if two other things had not also happened in the last couple of decades.
First, the two biggest parties in the land have shrunk in prestige and popularity. Neither the Likud nor the Labor party can win more than a third of the seats in the Knesset for itself. Second, at their expense the grab-bag of little parties—religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, Zionist, anti-Zionist, and non-Zionist, responsible and mad—have proliferated. Their combined strength in the present Knesset exceeds that of either the Likud or Labor alone.
Demographics are sometimes adduced to account for these developments. It is pointed out that, over the last generation or two, observant Israelis, and those who originated in Asia and Africa and are loosely known as Sephardim, have been having more children, and have been less liable to leave for New York or Los Angeles, than others of their countrymen. These statistics may be accurate, but they are not very enlightening. It does not necessarily follow from the birthrate and emigration figures that the predominant ideals and myths of the country when it was young should have been superseded. And the increase of the skullcapped and dark-skinned hardly makes it clear why the main right-wing party, Likud, has become quite as weak as Labor.
A better analysis would be broadly dialectical, fully conscious that politics is but the crude reflection of cultural shifts. The operative Zionist visions of the grandparents—whether humanist, socialist, or nationalist—have not been passed on to very many of the grandchildren. This should not be surprising, seeing that the visions were revolutionary and the revolution took place. Nor is Israel altogether unique in this. The failure of the Left especially to renew itself here is comparable to its failure elsewhere in the West. The kibbutzim are bankrupt, figuratively as well as literally, and left-wingers in the cities are recognizable by their snobbishness, despair, prosperity, nostalgia, and masochism.
Yet it is not only the social-democratic dream, the official dream thirty years ago, which has run out of steam. The Old Right, for more than a generation synonymous with Menachem Begin, is also in decline. It has steadily been losing votes since his retirement, on the one hand to nationalists who make him look like the soul of moderation, on the other hand to rabbi-worshippers. No longer do portraits of Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Begin decorate felafel stands. They have been replaced by the Lubavitcher rebbe, the Baba Sali (the late Sephardi Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira), and (yes) Rambo. It is as if a centrifugal force were shattering BG’s New Jew into a thousand old pieces.
The most spectacular product of this force at work has been Shas (“Sep hardi Torah Guardians”). This new haredi party, on the face of it, is only another team in a league where the prizes are jobs, money, and chauffeured Volvos. Shas, supported mainly by Jews of Moroccan extraction, is the first ethnic party in Israel to make a place for itself on the political map. It, or rather the conditions which brought it about, would sadden BG. To watch its young cadres working the phones is to recall that for years the Labor party patronized the Moroccans, and even in Begin’s Herut (later the Likud), they supplied the troops, while the Ashkenazim, to this day, remain the generals.
Yet the power game is not all. It is not even the essence. The rise of Shas reflects the genesis of a xenophobic religiosity among some Sephardim. None other than Shas’s top man in the Knesset, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, a former professional soccer player, explained that the reason a train struck a school bus at a crossing, killing many children, was that there is too much desecration of the Sabbath in Israel.
In any case, the prestige and authority of the original Zionist culture, of the founders, has been eclipsed. The Six-Day War, when euphoria succeeded dread, the Yom Kippur War, when dread succeeded complacency, and the war in Lebanon, when the IDF found itself in Beirut without knowing why, accelerated the process. The politicians and generals found popular trust being withdrawn from them and reinvested, if anywhere, in rabbis. The two main parties faltered. By 1981, for the first time, Aguda had the balance of power. It used it to enter Begin’s coalition, at the price of getting money for its schools without supervision, a manifest violation of the status quo.
Seven years later, the three haredi parties individually and collectively broke through. Each of them, in the wake of last year’s election deadlock, was in a position to dictate, to make or break a Likud or Labor government. It went to their heads. At one point or another they demanded, and seemed to be promised, the Ministries of the Interior, Religious Affairs, Welfare, Housing, and Immigrant Absorption, the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, stiffer Sabbath laws, stewardship of the national lottery, and, to break the camel’s back, that change in the Law of Return, popularly known as “Who is a Jew.”
The first law enacted by the first Knesset was the Law of Return in 1950, affirming the right of any Jew to enter Israel and become a citizen. But who is a Jew? The provisional government of the state had answered the question rather liberally two years before: a Jew is someone who says he is a Jew. Such a definition, fine for freethinking Jews right after Hitler, was unacceptable to others, descent in Halakhah being matrilinear. But it was eight years before the NRP bolted the government over the problem. This occurred when the Minister of the Interior, a member of one of the socialist Zionist parties, consented to register as Jewish the child of a marriage in which only the father was a Jew.
Governing without the NRP was inconvenient for BG. After two years, having canvassed rabbis and others worldwide, he gave in. He sent a letter to the NRP which included these words: “The government will maintain the status quo . . . in regard to matters of religion.” He also replaced the Interior Minister with an NRP man, who promptly went beyond the letter and issued a directive whereby registrations of Jews would be in accordance with Halakhah. “A Jew,” the directive to clerks read, “means a person born of a Jewish mother or who has been converted to Judaism.” However, the Supreme Court struck this down. The justices said that Halakhah was not legally binding and that the Interior Minister had exceeded his authority. If the government wished to redefine what a Jew was, it would have to pass a law in the Knesset.
This was done, not without the most earnest debate and Byzantine logrolling, ten years later, in 1970 during Golda Meir’s term as premier. The NRP seemed satisfied. Aguda was not. It demanded that as for conversions, only those carried out “in accordance with Halakhah” be honored. Year in, year out, it presented bills to that effect, which were not passed.
By the late 1970’s, the NRP and Menachem Begin’s Likud were backing the additional wording, each for its own reasons. Or rather, the NRP was doing it fairly sincerely, the Likud less so. The NRP’s face was changing with a change of generations—it was growing a beard and getting a faraway look in its eye. The Likud, having become the country’s leading party, had coalition arithmetic to worry about. By promising Aguda that he would do what he could for the amendment, Begin in 1977 got the haredim to support his coalition tacitly, and in 1981 actually brought them into the government. Whenever the Aguda and the new NRP tried to convert these promises into action, however, they were disappointed. Begin, an old-time liberal, refrained from imposing discipline, letting his people vote their consciences. The votes were close, but in the event the Knesset, including Arab and Communist legislators, always rejected the change.
The haredi and dati draft amendments continued to be routinely, persistently, religiously tabled after Begin’s retirement. Less was at stake politically after a national-unity government was made in 1984, since, when the Likud and Labor are forced to combine, the smaller parties are cut down to size. But there were still mini-crises arising from this issue or pseudo-issue. In 1986, for example, Shas’s Peretz quit the Interior Ministry after being obliged by the Supreme Court to register as a Jew an American immigrant, Shoshanna Miller, who had been converted by a Reform rabbi. Shas returned to the ministry only after Shamir, now premier, promised yet again that the Likud would do better. Soon after, Miller returned to Colorado, and the haredi parties, in the most recent Knesset elections, scored their breakthough.
At one point or another in the parleying last November and December, both Shamir and Peres promised Aguda that if it went into a narrow government with the Likud, or with Labor, it would finally get its way with Who is a Jew. The promise was only one of a pile of inducements offered to and extorted by the little parties. The pledges this time were in writing, not verbal. Probably neither Shamir nor Peres meant to honor them, yet circumstances made such solemn lies vital. If they disgusted some Israelis, they seem to have mortified most of the Jews in the rest of the world.
The uproar abroad took our bareheaded politicians by surprise. Who would have thought that American Jews, so comfortably at home, would panic over a few words more or less in some Israeli law? This unexpected reaction, as things developed, was not unwelcome—Shamir and Peres turned it to advantage in their poker games with the haredim on the way to another national-unity government. But the surprise was as honest as anything can be with politicians. “Yes, I was surprised that so many [American Jews] took it as a personal matter,” confessed Yossi Ben Aharon, director general of Shamir’s office. “It just goes to show that there are things which we in Israel don’t understand about them.”
That is putting it diplomatically. The one thing all Israelis understand, and in varying degrees resent, is the fact that, as much as our American cousins may love this country, they will not move here, will not join us. The very few who do come to stay are invariably dati’im and haredim, not at all representative of Mr. & Mrs. Average American Jew. So although the travesty played out by our politicians and rabbis was dismaying, and worse, to more than a few of us, the real issue—who shall be an authentic rabbi for the Jews who remain in Exile—was remote. And there’s the rub. So few Average American Jews and Average American Rabbis come to share our fate with us that even our most devoted hilonim would say that as far as rabbis are concerned, only what the foreign press calls the Orthodox are the genuine article. These Reform and Conservative padres, passing through with their correct political opinions, look and sound more like psychiatrists and college professors, and not very impressive or self-respecting psychiatrists and college professors at that.
The American Jewish envoys who came flying over to voice mass concern, grievance, and anger were soothingly reassured by our politicicans and chief rabbis alike that the amendment did not mean much. It certainly did not mean that the non-Orthodox—something like 85 percent of American Jews—were bad or partial Jews. These “dialogues,” probably not the last of their kind, always had a tragicomic, unspoken subtext.
What the bareheaded Israeli politicians were thinking but not saying was: “You people are basically spectators, not players. If you and your dubiously-converted spouses came here to live and vote, we wouldn’t have to have these squalid dealings with the rabbis.” Our establishment rabbis were thinking, but not saying: “You good, poor Jews are Jews, all right—but what about your grandchildren? Will a child who goes to ‘temple’ once in a while, and who is married in a ceremony presided over jointly by a ‘rabbi’ and a Catholic priest, be a Jew in any more serious sense than Woody Allen? We are seeking to de-legitimize your ‘rabbis’ because only if real Judaism has a monopoly can the Jewish people survive.” And the American Jews staying at the Hilton and the King David were thinking, but not saying: “We’re not afraid that America’s honeymoon with us may terminate, even though all such honeymoons have terminated in the past. America is different. And even if it does, we’re not afraid that because of any Israeli law we or our children will be refused refuge. The thing is, America is killing us with kindness. Most of us, by now, are Jews only thanks to Israel. Take that away, even by implication, and what are we?”
As usual, self-interest and what Weizmann called “lust for power” are compounded with idealism. On the one hand, there is no doubt that some of the “Orthodox” rabbis are sincerely, altruistically worried about the future if Jews and Judaism continue being watered down. On the other hand, it helps to be cynical—what we have here, among other things, is the latest tussle between competing guilds. The guild of divines which enjoys a closed shop in Israel due to the refusal of Reform and Conservative Jews to immigrate wishes to roll back the changes of the last couple of centuries and extend its cartel worldwide. That is understandable, and is understood by a great many Israelis who know their rabbis.
The twist is that even if Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis were consigned to outer darkness and their congregants saved, it would only be the beginning, for as the situation in Israel shows, rabbis are a contentious bunch. Closed shop or no, impeccably non-Reform, non-Conservative, non-Reconstructionist rabbis here are constantly at each others’ throats. The ex-Sephardi and ex-Ashkenazi chief rabbis are not on speaking terms. The judgments of the courts appointed by the dati-run chief rabbinate, and the certificates of its kashrut inspectors, cut no ice with the various haredi sects, each of which has its own legal and dietary apparatus. These sects, furthermore, are often at daggers drawn, a given which Shamir and Peres capitalized on. In short, once some rabbis start degrading others in the name of unity and by means of Israeli law, where will it end?
Cynical and idealistic, self-interested and patriotic, Shamir and Peres gave the rabbis a lesson in politics, Israeli-style. Freshman member of the Knesset Rabbi Shlomo Ravitz of the Degel Hatorah (“Flag of the Torah”) party put it in a nutshell: “At the beginning, the religious parties tried to play the two big parties off against each other; at the end, both big parties played the religious parties off against themselves.” This was possible, if far from easy, because the “religious” are not one camp but many.
Degel, for example, is a new party formed to advance the interests of the Litvak (originally Lithuanian) mitnagdim (anti-hasidic) camp of haredim as against those of the hasidic dynasties grouped in Aguda. In this sense the fight dates from the 18th century. Personal animus at the top, filtering down intensely to the troops, is a feature of these long-lasting struggles. Degel’s mentor, the ninety-three-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Shach of Bnei Brak, is said not to be able to abide the eighty-seven-year-old Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher rebbe of Brooklyn, who, by throwing the weight of his Habad Hasidim behind Aguda in the last elections, is believed to have doubled its representation in the Knesset. It is also Habad which has made a special crusade of Who is a Jew.
The ethnic factor, a ticklish one, enters in with Shas. As has been indicated, Shas is almost as much an expression of the Sephardi, especially the Moroccan, will-to-political-power as it is a religious phenomenon. No love is lost between Aguda and Shas, the latter holding the former guilty of condescension in the past and of dirty pool today.
Besides personalities and ethnicity, there is also the cash nexus. Each haredi party, and the sub-parties within it, have housing projects and schools to be financed, in large part out of Israeli government and ministerial budgets. The competition for these monies is ferocious, and the secular politicians, not to mention radio interviewers, make the most of it. One of the lowest, most revealing points of the government-making crisis was plumbed when Rabbi Ravitz and Aguda’s Rabbi Moshe Feldman were brought together on a telephone hookup by Radio Israel to discuss the subject of public funding for their respective yeshivas, much of which hung on who made what deal with which of the two big hiloni parties. The gleeful anchorman did not have to egg these pious Jews on—the airwaves dripped with venom.
It was lucky for the Jewish state that if the haredi politicians finally realized that Shamir and Peres had led them on, they knew from the start that they could trust each other even less. Another national-unity government was formed, the Law of Return is being left alone, and a collective sigh of relief was heard from American Jews. It was premature, however.
The haredi parties may have second thoughts about trying to delegitimize Reform and Conservative Judaism through the Knesset. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. The Law of Return may be amended in practice, if not on the books, by steering every new immigrant not born Jewish to a rabbinical court for “friendly advice” before being registered. This is exactly what Shas, which slunk into the government after loudly protesting that both Shamir and Peres had broken solemn promises to its sages, and which holds the portfolios of the Interior and Immigration, is doing. The upshot is a clutch of pending cases in the Supreme Court, including that of an immigrant who was converted by an Orthodox rabbi abroad but objects to having to have her conversion validated by the local rabbis.
So the problem of Who is a Jew/Who is a rabbi remains with us. It has not been resolved, it has merely been moved to the back burner, where it will boil up again, either the next time a government has to be formed or when the time comes for making peace with the Palestinians. It is a matter, after all, of principle.
Principle and self-interest—the two great motives of politics. Humiliated as they might have felt by their treatment at the hands of the secular politicians, worried as some of them may be by the fallout on their flocks and on the name of Judaism from such sordid farces, the behind-the-scenes bosses of the haredi parties, the octogenarian and nonagenarian sages, have no choice. They cannot bid farewell to politics—Shas, Aguda, and Degel, without skipping a beat, contested the municipal elections up and down the country in February. If the vision of a good Jewish society alone did not compel the burgeoning haredim, demographics and economics would goad them on mercilessly from behind.
The haredi population pyramid is shaped like that of the Palestinians—small on top, very wide on the bottom. Sixty percent of the haredim in Israel are under twenty-five years of age. This is a tribute to their regenerative powers, their optimistic dutifulness, but it also bodes trouble. If the men spend their lives studying the sacred texts, while their wives alternate giving birth and holding down low-paying jobs, how will this community or communities keep everyone housed, fed, and clothed?
The poverty in parts of Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak, and in Safed, Ashdod, Netivot, and right in Tel Aviv, where the haredim are staking out new ground, is already as bad as in any Palestinian refugee camp—eight or ten people in two or three rooms is not unusual. Their flocks may count on heaven, but the haredi shepherds must think more practically. Nor can angels from abroad be expected to foot the bill for all the competing sects. These have no choice, therefore, but to supplement their separate begging drives abroad with a steady tap into the Israeli treasury. So the haredi imperative is not to drop out of the political game, but to play it united and with the coolest possible heads.
Last year’s spectacle, it is widely agreed, must not recur. Yet chances are it will. Not only was it undignified—it might have concluded much less happily, far more dangerously, than it did. The conventional secular wisdom says that the way to keep the tail from wagging the dog right over the brink next time is at long last to pass what Ben-Gurion always desired but could never get—an electoral reform. And indeed, the Likud-Labor coalition pact includes a commitment to study reform seriously. Will anything come of it?
There are grounds to be less than sanguine. First, and inevitably, there seem to be almost as many reform plans as there are Jews. Some, especially in the Likud, want direct election of the Prime Minister, as in France. Others, especially in Labor, are against this, arguing that it would open the door for some charismatic demagogue, and are plumping instead for a change of the parliamentary system from proportional to constituency representation, again as in France. Meanwhile, Uriel Reichmann of Tel Aviv University, the country’s foremost expert on the subject, says a decent reform can only be three-pronged. It should adopt both of the above changes, plus something else Israel has never had—a bill of rights or constitution. Other people think the answer is to raise the minimum number of votes needed to win a Knesset s/?/?/?/
All such talk distresses the small parties, both skullcapped and bareheaded. Aguda not without reason, reckons it will be victimized by gerrymandering, while Yair Tsaban, head of the left-wing Mapam, maintains that the trouble is not in the system, it is in ourselves, in this society which in so many matters is divided against itself. He may be right. Nor can anyone, not even Professor Reichmann, be certain what the results of any reform would be. They might make this country even less governable.
Given the host of ideas, and the workings of the human and political mind as the memory of last year’s crisis fades and new ones flare, the chances of reform before the next general elections should probably be put at less than fifty-fifty. It can fairly confidently be predicted that the haredim are again going to be in the thick of things.
The next test may come sooner than 1992. It may come in the not-too-distant future if Yasir Arafat is able to convince not only the people in Foggy Bottom and on West End Avenue but also a more substantial number here that he can deliver peace for territory. Then the apparent questions will be ones of geopolitics, of demilitarized zones, early-warning stations, security guarantees, and so on. But the deeper debate will be over the great intangibles—who are we, what are we doing here, what have we been striving, dying, killing for? What is the nature of the world and of reality? What do we want, what can we get, and what are we commanded by reason, conscience, or God to do? In other words, it will also be another act, maybe the climactic one, in the Cultural-Religious drama.
Behind Behind “Who is a Jew” A Letter from Jerusalem
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.