These . . . cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger. .…
These . . . cities shall he a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger. . . . —Numbers 35:15
Like Canaan, Provence is eloquent with sunlight. The landscape, harsh, dry, and brilliant, with white vestiges of antique civilizations, recalls Biblical Palestine: olive trees spring from the rocky hillsides, and the vines, like those in the Old Testament, are heavy with grapes. Irrigation canals, branching from the Rhone and its tributaries, filter through fields and orchards which yield melons, asparagus, apricots, and berries that are the primeurs of France. Yet much of Provence remains desert, a land swept by sun and wind, and alive with color.
Governing the region with the authority of Sinai, six thousand feet above the plain, is the bluish peak of Mount Ventoux—the “Mountain of All Winds,” including the wicked mistral. But the mistral rarely blows in summer, when the hot countryside undulates as in a Van Gogh; and then the mountain looks down on the cities of the plain with the same austere kindness as when, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, this corner of southern France provided refuge for the children of Israel.
Until the French Revolution, northern Provence was the Papal State of the Comtat Venaissin, stretching eastward from the Rhone to the first ridge of the Alps. Its boundaries, marked by great gilded crucifixes, were opened by the Holy See to the harassed; and the Jew, exiled from England in 1290, from the crown territories of France in 1394, from Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497, found that he could live here on terms which, for the times, were relatively humane. In the ghettos of Avignon, Carpentras, L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, and Cavaillon were established four tiny republics—the Arba Kehilloth, or four Holy Communities. In spite of intermittent persecutions and vigorous—sometimes violent—proselytism by the surrounding Christian population, these communities clung to their religious and cultural heritage during four hundred years of isolation from the rest of world Jewry. On occasion, when they received permission, they also constructed synagogues; and the temples of Carpentras and Cavaillon, which are all that remain of their creations, stand as the most handsome examples of monumental Jewish art in France.
Jewish history in Provence, however, goes back further even than the medieval foundations of these 18th-century synagogues. Some Jews, drawn from the community at Rome which by Cicero’s time was already wealthy and influential, were present in southern Gaul, it would seem, from the early days of the Roman occupation which began in 125 B.C.E. They probably did their share, as commissary agents to the legions, merchants, and slave dealers, in making the colony the opulent Provincia described by Strabo. Nevertheless, Jews cannot have come to Gaul in great numbers until after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era and after the failure of Bar Kochba’s uprising in 135 C.E.
The Roman impression upon Provence has never completely faded. Descending the Rhone, as the first cypress and ilex appear along shore, the traveler feels that he is on the threshold of Italy. Almost every Provençal city has imposing Roman remains; even the market towns of Carpentras and Cavaillon have their Roman arches. Under Imperial rule—especially after Caracalla in 212 conferred citizenship on all freeborn males—Jews lived in relative calm and, very likely, affluence in the rich southern province. Their ships plied between the Rhone delta and the mouth of the Tiber, carrying corn, wheat, oil, and wine to Ostia and Rome, and returning to Marseilles and Aries with textiles, spices, papyrus, and gold. Jews were free to practice law and medicine, to serve in the administrative bureaucracy, and to hold military command. They also enjoyed liberty of residence; yet even in classical times they ordinarily congregated in a single quarter surrounding the synagogue, thus creating a proto-ghetto environment which would not be officially forced upon them until more than a thousand years later. Jewish freedom of worship, which included the security of synagogues from hostile pagan or Christian mobs, was guaranteed by law.
These synagogues evidently compared in decorative splendor and design, if not always in size, with other religious monuments of the period. Unfortunately, however, Jewish archaeological remains from late antiquity are extremely rare. Only the astonishing 3rd-century structure at Dura Europas,1 on the Euphrates, its walls covered with representational murals, has been found more or less intact; and its simple rectangular plan differs considerably from the more complex basilican plan which was probably employed in Gaul. For ground plans at Elche in Spain, at Aegina in Greece, and at Beth Alpha, Jerash, El Hammeh, and other places in Palestine, reveal that the later classical synagogue in the West usually resembled a Hellenistic basilica. Two lines of pillars, running parallel to the long side of the building, divided the interior into a central nave and flanking aisles. Often the pillars supported upper galleries which, in accordance with Zechariah 12:12-14, were reserved for women. The greatest synagogues had not two, but four rows of pillars which formed a double aisle on either side of an immense nave. Such a structure was the famous monument at Alexandria which, the Talmud boasts, could contain more people than Moses led out of Egypt.
To visualize these classical synagogues, it is necessary today to piece together fragments of walls, portals, and colonnades. But ruins such as those at K’far Birim and Capernaum (Tell Hum) in Palestine, mosaics such as the fragment from Hamman-Lif in Africa which is now at the Brooklyn Museum, and of course the magnificent Dura murals, indicate that the buildings were fastidiously decorated, both within and without. The Jew was not afraid to display his art on the exterior of his buildings, and their Doric or Corinthian façades, sometimes surmounted by entablatures and pediments, were generously conceived and executed. Significantly, too, in later times pagan motifs mingled esoterically with traditionally Jewish decorative themes.
The ancient synagogues of Provence have vanished, but near Saint-Rémy is the excavated city of Glanum, destroyed in the 3rd century C.E. by one of the first barbarian raids that marked the downfall of the Western Empire. Among the ruins are those of a basilica approximately 120 feet long and 40 feet wide, terminating in a semi-circular apse, and preceded by a forecourt which contained a ritualistic well. Almost surely this was a pagan temple, although it could also have been an assembly hall or law court, but a synagogue would not have been much different in basic plan. Nor can the Hellenistic houses of Glanum, whoever occupied them, have been distinguishable from the homes of Jews throughout the classical world. Perhaps more than the colossal arena at nearby Arles, these houses, with their delightful interior courtyards, show what was lost when wave after wave of barbarians swept over Gaul, bringing to an end, together with all human security, the security of the Jew.
Cities which escaped destruction dwindled in size and population. Their open Roman patterns gave way to twisted networks of medieval streets. The reduced perimeters were walled, and men learned to live in fear, locking themselves within fortified strongholds whenever danger threatened. Avignon, never as important during Roman days as the neighboring river ports of Arles and Orange, became a city of consequence because of the strategic value of its lofty rock dominating the Rhone. The superb Roman public works, such as the aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, fell into disuse. The roads deteriorated. Pagan and Jewish temples, too, were converted to churches, for the barbarian invaders, together with the old Gallo-Roman population, were now Christian.
The Jew, rather than a citizen with full rights, became a stranger without clear legal status. Henceforth, until modern times, his fortunes would vary according to the caprice and piety of local overlords. The lords themselves at first changed frequently as Burgundians, Goths, and Franks, and, from the 8th century onward, Saracens, contended for Provence. Too often—Isidore Loeb pointed out—legends have been accepted which allege that during this violent period Jews participated in anti-clerical revolts (they are said, for example, to have joined a popular rebellion against Bishop Stephen of Avignon in the year 390) or else that they opened the gates of Provençal cities to Moslems or heretical Goths. Much as they may have preferred Saracens or heretics to the devoutly orthodox Franks, the Jews would have been hard put to it to accomplish the treachery attributed to them by Church historians of the later Middle Ages.
The long era of barbarian and Moslem incursions, which did not subside until the 11th century, has been called the Dark Ages. Yet in some ways it was a progressive period: the West was gradually creating the society which would one day erect the Gothic cathedrals; and in spite of a growing number of pariah laws, including some which restricted synagogue construction, the Jew has known blacker moments. At worst, anti-Semitic legislation, in Provence and elsewhere, was only haphazardly enforced; at best it was openly disregarded by Christian and Jew alike. During stable intervals such as the reign of Charlemagne, a catch-as-catch-can economy offered rich opportunities to entrepreneurs of intelligence and daring, qualities which many Jews apparently possessed. Until the Saracens closed the Mediterranean to commerce, Jewish ships, commanded by Jewish captains, dominated the international luxury trade between Gaul and Asia Minor; Marseilles, one of the busiest ports, received from Bishop Gregory of Tours in the 6th century the epithet Hebraea. By the 9th century, to believe the outcries against them by the zealous Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, the Jews, made prideful by wealth, high political position under the Carolingians, and their own stiff-necked religious convictions, openly proselytized among a population which had scarcely emerged from paganism, especially in rural areas.
The Jews not only survived the Dark Ages, they emerged from the period of invasions as a prosperous and—until the massacres that coincided with the Crusades—tolerated minority. As much as to commerce and finance, they were given to crafts such as weaving, engraving, and armory (Chaucer would write of “a fyn hauberk . . . all y-wroght of Jewes werk”). By the 12th century, there were more Jews than ever before within the territory of modern France: perhaps 100,000, or nearly one-tenth of the population. More than half of them were concentrated in the south where, in places, they constituted imposing minorities of one-fourth or even one-third of the population, with wealth and influence far exceeding their numbers. As often as not, they were assigned the contemptible title of serf, but in reality they were tributary vassals of the great lords and, in this capacity, their “men.” Jews could not change their residence or transfer their allegiance, but they bore no resemblance to agricultural workers bound to the soil.
These southern Jews resided in the same cities as in antiquity, often, it is thought, in quarters they had by now occupied for a millennium. In the complex feudal mosaic of the Mediterranean coastlands, many of them lived under either the direct or indirect rule of the Counts of Toulouse. These enlightened princes governed a vast system of fiefs, extending the width of Provence and Languedoc, which even in the first half of the 12th century were so penetrated by heterodox beliefs that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux came there to preach angrily in the name of the Church Militant. With the exception of Spain, nowhere else in medieval Europe did Jews possess such ease in social intercourse and as much prominence in commerce, finance, and politics—in spite of periodic humiliations such as the ceremonial cuffing of a Jewish elder by the gauntleted Count on Good Friday.
When Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela made his celebrated journey in the second half of the 12th century, he found sizable Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Midi. At Beaucaire, a few miles below Avignon on the opposite side of the Rhone, where great annual fairs were held, there were four hundred families; at Marseilles three hundred families; and two hundred at Arles. Since families resembled small clans, and included married children and grandchildren as well as Jewish retainers, these figures should be multiplied by at least five to arrive at conservative totals for the population of the communities.
Rabbi Benjamin did not mention Avignon, but this should not be taken as proof that the community there was necessarily small and undistinguished. Other sources reveal that the city had its share of noted Jewish doctors. In 1122, to cite a happy example, King Louis VI summoned to Paris an Avignonnais physician named Zour,2 who was also an astrologer and clairvoyant. Zour detected the hiding place of jewels which had been stolen from the royal treasure, and restored them to the delighted monarch.
The Avignon which Zour knew, rather than the notorious, half-Italian later city of the Popes, was a thriving mercantile town of some fifteen thousand inhabitants. Its splendid situation near the confluence of the Rhone and the Durance, where it served—as it still does—as the hub of the major roads of the region, made it a center of both river and overland trade. This resulted not only in prosperity but in a rare degree of municipal independence. In 1129 the bourgeoisie obtained from the Count and the Bishop the concession of an oligarchic republican constitution, on the order of Venice’s, which made Avignon a free city.
Little remains of this Avignon. Not even the Romanesque portions of Notre-Dame-des-Doms (dating from 1140 to 1160) were standing at the time of Zour’s visit to Paris in 1122; a now vanished 11th-century cathedral was there. The Palace of the Popes was not dreamed of—its construction would not begin for nearly two hundred years. But between the Rhone and the great square which now lies before the Palace, is a quarter which Zour would not have found much different in his day. Its medieval houses, some of whose substructures are Roman, are pressed together on twisting lanes and alleys which occasionally become stairways on their steep descent to the river.
Here stood the Old Jewry, possibly since Roman times. The irregular area measures no more than sixty by thirty yards, less than a modern city block. The narrow street which runs half its length is still known as the Rue de Vieille-Juiverie. Intersecting this Street of the Old Jewry are two even narrower passages; and at the corner of one of them, the Rue Reille-Juiverie, stands a building whose nondescript exterior scarcely distinguishes it from its neighbors but whose interior is quite another matter.
This oblong room, only ten by fourteen feet, and vaulted by a pair of round arches, is said by an old tradition to have been the early medieval synagogue of Avignon. In the absence of a modern archaeological investigation, it is at present impossible to confirm the tradition, much less to date the construction accurately. The arches seem Romanesque, as does the round window of the southern wall. In northern France this would be enough to assign the building to the 12th century, or to the late 11th. But Romanesque forms lingered late in Provence, where round arches can be found dating, not from the 12th, but from the 13th and 14th centuries.
There is some reason to believe, however, that this is a 12th-century structure, and that it did serve a specifically Jewish purpose. The remaining traces of the eastern and northern windows show they were slightly pointed—that is, Gothic—in style, and this in turn indicates a reconstruction in the 13th century: thus the rest of the building may be presumed to be of an earlier date. Historical evidence supports this conjecture. The Jewry was damaged during the siege of Avignon in 1226: the walls may have been hit at that time and rebuilt. As will be seen, after the siege the Jews were moved from the Old Jewry, where they apparently had lived by choice, to a New Jewry which was a true ghetto. The old Synagogue and its dependencies were probably given over to the Church, as was usual in such cases. The building would then have been converted into a chapel, and presuming it escaped damage during the siege, the new cult must surely have wished to make some structural alterations. The presence of Gothic windows, in fact, when rectangular ones would have been cheaper, indicates that this was no ordinary dwelling.
Still another piece of evidence suggests that the building once had Jewish liturgical associations. At one corner a well descends fifty feet; the requirement of a ready supply of pure water for ritualistic ablutions made a well a necessity for the medieval synagogue, as it had been for the ancient Temple.
Yet unless the Avignon community was exceedingly small, this chamber, with room for no more than twenty-five worshipers, could not have sufficed as its synagogue. In all probability this was not the temple itself but an adjacent dependency, a study hall or beth ha-midrash—perhaps even a hostel for travelers. Or it could have been an auxiliary worshipping place for women, as at Worms, adjoining a more imposing men’s temple. Possible future excavations might clear up the mystery.
This venerable quarter, in which no Jews now live, has become a melancholy slum; it is hard to realize that eight hundred years ago its sleepy streets brimmed with the kind of economic and intellectual vitality which produced, in 1177, the great Bridge of Avignon. No civic improvement on this scale had been attempted in Provence since the Pont du Gard. The powerful Rhone, even today, is a formidable river to bridge, and to span it with stone arches rather than with reinforced concrete or steel was a prodigious feat which the Romans themselves, content with a bridge of boats downstream at Arles, never attempted. As much as any cathedral, the Pont d’Avignon, much changed and half-ruined as it stands, displays the imaginative vigor of the Middle Ages at its best.
Until the Pont Saint-Bénézet, as the bridge has always been known, was built, the river could be crossed at this point only by ferry, and in the popular legend that turned its construction into a supernatural event, a Jew figures as a ferryman. The legend has it that Saint Bénézet—“Little Benedict”—was a shepherd lad who, tending his lambs, heard a voice from Heaven; the Lord was instructing him to go to Avignon and build a bridge there. Bénézet arrived across the river from the city with three farthings in his pocket, and asked a ferryman to take him over “for the love of God and Our Lady Holy Mary.” The ferryman, a Jew, replied: “You must pay me three pence as all do.” Bénézet appealed to him once more in the name of God and the Virgin. The Jew only answered: “What care I for your Mary, who has no power in Heaven or on earth? I would rather have three pence, there are many Maries.” Then Bénézet offered him what money he had, and the Jew took it, and ferried him across. Once arrived in Avignon, Bénézet is said, by the legend, to have accomplished even greater marvels. To convince the skeptical Bishop of his divine mission, he lifted a stone “that thirty men could not have moved . . . as if it were a pebble, and carried it away and laid it down as the foundation stone for the bridge.”3 This supposedly took place in 1177. It required eleven years for the bridge to be completed. The difference the bridge made in the commercial life of Avignon may be appreciated today by anyone who crosses the Rhone by boat. It still costs only a penny or two to take the little ferry to the recreation ground on the Ile de la Barthelasse. The boat is strung on a cable, and after the ferryman poles it into the stream, the strong current carries it along swiftly. Medieval boatsmen had no guiding cable, and without it a boat is difficult—in heavy weather, impossible—to control.
Now the already flourishing town of Avignon attained a new prosperity. Southern France by the turn of the 13th century had fully revived economically. Not even under the Romans, perhaps, had times been so good—the standard of living so high—for the bulk of the population. Ironically, this wealth meant the doom of an independent southern civilization in France. The Albigensian Crusade, waged ostensibly to eradicate heresy, had as its main results the downfall of the brilliant House of Toulouse and the acquisition of the territory by the French Crown and the Holy See. In 1226 a French army, led by Louis VIII, appeared before Avignon, which had been under the ban of the Church for ten years. In the siege that followed, disease and famine compelled the city to capitulate after three months of furious resistance. Heavy indemnities were exacted by the victors. Three hundred houses were razed, probably many Jewish houses among them, together with the city walls which were later rebuilt by the Popes and still give a strong impression of the fortified medieval town. Northern princes—Alphonse of Poitiers and Charles of Anjou, both sons of Louis VIII—became the chief lords of Languedoc and Provence. The old Midi life was forever gone. If defeat was painful for the heretics, it was disastrous for the Jews. Henceforth they were banished from public life: a clause of the peace treaty of 1229 specifically barred them from administrative posts. Those few Jews—there were never more than a few during the Middle Ages—who had amassed large fortunes as bankers were crowded from the field by favored Christian rivals; especially, they could not compete with the powerful Florentines who had extended their operations to France. Within a century most Jewish financiers found themselves reduced to pawnbroking, although several managed to continue large-scale dealings.
At the instigation of Christian competitors, Jewish merchants were now confined to second-hand transactions in cloth, apparel, and other goods. Some were still able to trade, as they had for centuries, in spices, grains, wine, oil, honey, wax, alum, leather, horses and other animals, silks, coral, pearls, and gems. These were spirited businessmen—we know one edict forbade them to accost passers-by and pull them by force into the shops. But only extraordinary energy could cope with the oppressive legislation and arbitrary taxation that had cut heavily into profits.
Jewish artisans were even less fortunate. The guilds, which had long excluded them, achieved a virtual Christian monopoly in most crafts. Jewish seal-makers, illuminators, and jewelers long retained their skills, but Jewish gold and silversmiths, once so famous, grew rare. Franz Landsberger has pointed out that it was in the south of France, so far as can be learned, that for the first time a non-Jew, Robin Asard of Avignon, in 1439 made a Torah crown for the congregation of Aries.
It was at this time, too, that the Jewish peddler, rather than the princely traveling merchant, made his appearance on the roads. In the cities a Jewish proletariat rose, chronically unemployed and dependent on alms. The French saying “as poor as a Jew in Avignon” came into usage.
To economic hardship were added social indignities. Badges of infamy—the little red or saffron yellow wheel, sewn on the coat—were imposed throughout the West after Church policy hardened in the anti-Semitic measures of the Lateran Council of 1215. The Council also founded the Inquisition, and laid the way for the establishment of ghettos which could be sealed off by walls and gates.
The forced change of residence by the Jews of Avignon was typical of the ghetto development. Shortly after the siege, the Old Jewry was ordered evacuated, and the Jews transferred to the exact center of the city, a quarter formerly occupied by Christians. The reason for the location is clear. The Jews were suspected of dissatisfaction. To the medieval mind, as to the modern authoritarian mind, dissatisfaction was indistinguishable from disloyalty. Tales of Jewish treachery far in the past, during the Saracenic wars, were invented, and used as a pretext for placing the Jews as far as possible from the city’s outer fortifications.
The new Jewry was a city within a city, and is in fact referred to as “la cité juive” in one document. Today its changed outlines can be recognized only by such street names as the Rue Abraham and the Rue Jacob, but the original appearance of the ghetto is known from old pictorial maps. It was roughly one hundred yards square, and was connected to the rest of the city by two gates. One, at the end of the Rue Abraham, from the year 1398 onward was closed by a drawbridge, which the Jews were said to have requested “for their own security” (pro securitate ejusdem) .
The ghetto system made no provision for an increase in population. As the community grew to more than one thousand people in the 14th century, the only solution to the housing problem was to build upward. Tenements of five and six stories were constructed, some of which survive, surmounted by shabby penthouses of later date. These tall structures cut off all light from the labyrinth of narrow, dead-end streets below. The chronic shortage of water made it impossible, in spite of valiant efforts, to keep the area clean. The houses, packed together, were poorly ventilated. The lower floors were not only perpetually dark, but dank and miserable. In times of plague, which struck Avignon repeatedly, the ghetto became a deathtrap.
Yet it was during outbreaks of plague that the intellectual vitality and moral courage of the Jews came strikingly to the notice of their Christian neighbors. The Jewish physicians were beyond praise. In the epidemic of 1506 Master Videz, an exceptionally gallant figure, voluntarily visited cadavers after the first alarm to identify symptoms of pestilence: this was considered far beyond his duty as a doctor. Together with Moses Alphandery, Samuel of Lunel, and Joshua of Cavaillon, Videz joined with Christian civic leaders and helped organize municipal resistance to the plague through remarkably modern quarantine techniques, including the burning of victims’ possessions, which unfortunately caused the sick to conceal their symptoms as long as possible.4 At first a hospital outside the walls was denied to the Jews, but a barn was at last provided for this purpose in the 17th century. The hospital proved a mixed blessing. The patients were attended by Dominicans, who zealously tried to convert them, and occasionally baptized the helpless against their will.
In addition to their traditional distinction in medicine, the Jews were preeminent in the study of all the natural sciences. Southern France was one of the great cultural transmission points of the Middle Ages. It was through the passes of the Pyrenees that from half-Moslem Spain—the Spain Maimonides knew—many Semitic words came into Latin and thence into French and English. A large proportion of them, significantly, were scientific, artistic, and musical terms: azimuth, zenith, zero, alembic, azure, lute, guitar, fanfare. Jews translated learned treatises from Greek and Arabic into Hebrew, and aided Christian scholars to translate them into Latin. The debt of modern civilization to the Jewries of the Mediterranean shorelands, particularly to the great Talmudical academy at Lunel, has perhaps yet to be appreciated fully. Too often, for reasons of prudence, the Christian scholar concealed his association with Jewish colleagues, and the collaboration has been lost to history.
But Jews did more than act as intermediaries between Moslem and Christian culture. They were outstanding scientists and speculative thinkers in their own right. One of the greatest of them, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344)—Gersonides—lived in the ghetto of Avignon. If Gersonides was not actually the inventor (he may have been preceded by Jacob ben Makir, one of the great Jewish physicians of Montpellier, who died in 1308) of the Jacob’s Staff, the quadrant used by all the famous Renaissance navigators, including Columbus, he was at least among its earliest and foremost developers. As an astronomer, he anticipated Copernicus, and his work was still valuable when Kepler took pains to consult his writings in the 17th century. As an applied physicist, he experimented with a camera obscura long before Leonardo da Vinci. As a courageous independent philosopher, he was a forerunner of Spinoza, and like him earned condemnation by his coreligionists for impiety. Gersonides’ masterpiece, Wars of the Lord, was called “Wars Against the Lord” by his more orthodox critics. Christian readers were not so severe. Pope Clement VI, from the eminence of his massive palace high above the Jewry, in 1342 ordered the astronomical portions of the work to be translated into Latin. This was a stroke of luck for posterity, for when the original Hebrew version was printed in the 15th century, these sections of the manuscript were omitted for their lack of theological importance.
In the development of printing, too, the Jews were pioneers. Cecil Roth has shown that, some six years before Gutenberg is thought to have set up his press, a member of the Avignon community in 1444 commissioned a wandering German craftsman to cut a Hebrew font “according to the art of writing artificially.”
In spite of the humiliation of ghetto life and the marked costume, in spite of the misery and congestion of their locked-in community, the Jews remained intellectually and spiritually dynamic. The source of this vitality, as it had been from antiquity, was the synagogue. Today, facing the pleasant little square of the Place Jerusalem (it was merely a tiny open space during the days of the ghetto), a 19th-century temple stands on the emplacement of the medieval synagogue which was erected after 1226. Although it was remodeled several times, its location was never changed during the six centuries before its destruction by fire in 1844. The present synagogue, coldly neoclassical, can tell very little of its predecessor. Nor do the modern Jews of Avignon, none of them descended from the old community, but immigrants from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa, much resemble the vanished residents of the ghetto, even in their religious devotions. How great a loss there has been at Avignon, will be seen at Carpentras and Cavaillon.
The road to Carpentras, which is fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, follows the easy terrain of the Comtat Venaissin through lines of cypress and eucalyptus trees; on either side stretch fields of asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries. Set well back, the stone farmhouses and outbuildings are massed together architectonically, as in a Cézanne.
This rich province (approximately embracing the territory of the modern department of the Vaucluse) fell to the share of the Church after the Albigensian Crusade, and was formally ceded by France to the Holy See in 1274. Seven French-speaking Popes, all heavily obligated to the French Crown, were to find the Comtat a fortunate acquisition during the 14th century. Rome, torn by the savage feuds of the Colonna and the Orsini, became uninhabitable for them. Under strong pressure from Philip IV of France, the first Pontiff to exile himself from Italy, the Gascon Clement V, in 1309, came to Carpentras to live. The city proved too small, and too far from the main routes of communication to serve as the seat of the Papacy. Therefore Clement’s successor, John XXII, five years later established the papal court at Avignon, which had not been included with the Comtat in the peace settlement, but which Clement VI purchased in 1348 from the tragic Jeanne des Baux, Countess of Provence and Queen of the Angevin House of Naples.
It was during the reign of Clement VI (1342-1352) and of his predecessor Benedict XII (1334-1342) that the immense Papal Palace was constructed and fortified and the city walls rebuilt and strengthened. Today these formidable installations, confronting the castle of Philip IV across the Rhone, still give a spectacular impression of the resurgence of Avignon under the Popes. But for all their brilliant show, the fortifications were defensive in spirit and strategy, a sign of weakness and fear. The Popes could not find troops even to crush the bands of brigands who roamed the countryside, but instead bought them off. In 1377 Gregory XI found the courage to return to anarchic Rome. He was followed on the throne of Peter by an Italian.
The Popes came to southern France at a particularly trying moment for the Jews of Western Europe. The new national governments, now that their centralized fiscal systems had been established and a class of great Christian capitalists had arisen, one by one despoiled and expelled their Jewish populations. Jews had been exiled from the royal domain of France as early as 1182, but the first permanent expulsion on a national rather than feudal basis was from England, in 1290. France followed suit in 1306, but then recalled the Jews at the demand of the people, who were exacerbated by the cupidity of Christian moneylenders. Periodically throughout the 14th century the Jews were chased from the kingdom of France and readmitted, in continually dwindling numbers, until at the time of their final exile in 1394, they were reduced from an original one hundred thousand to twenty thousand.
Refugees thronged the papal possessions. The Popes, who were themselves in political and financial straits, received them. This clemency held more than just a materialistic motive: the “Vicars of Christ” were morally bound, as defenders of the Old Testament, to protect the Jews and, if possible, convert them to the New. Christian charity, moreover, and humanistic enlightenment (demonstrated in Clement VI’s admiration for Gersonides) played some part in Church policy, which also extended asylum to other cast-outs: to lepers (who with the Jews were accused of poisoning wells in time of plague), and even to heretics.
Criminals and escaped prisoners, smugglers and counterfeiters, swarmed in, too, as well as a floating population of gamblers and prostitutes, plying their trades at the fairs of nearby Beaucaire. Hundreds of hangers-on attached themselves to the pontifical court, to profit from the extreme laxity in the entourages of the cardinals. Simony was widespread, and Avignon became notorious. Petrarch, castigating the city as “a sewer in which runs all the filth of the universe,” retired to the lovely Fountain of the Vaucluse; the laureate failed to add that Avignon in the 14th century was surpassed in venality and licentiousness only by Rome.
As early as 1303, Avignon and the Comtat were called “the paradise of the Jews.” The description needs correction. The comparatively mild conditions of papal rule constituted a refuge for Jews—for a handful of the wealthy ones, perhaps a comfortable refuge—but hardly more. How far from being a paradise they were could be seen at a glance, miles away, before the destruction of the ghetto of Carpentras in the last century: in a painting by Bonet at the municipal museum, depicting the city as it was in 1804, after five centuries of papal administration had ended, one sees rising out of the heart of the town, surmounting not only the ramparts and towers but also the churches and the cathedral, a rickety pyramid of Jewish dwellings, some of them small skyscrapers ten stories high, leaning against one another for support. This slum—in his splendid study of the community,5 Isidore Loeb called it a citadelle de la douleur—had been forced upward into the Provençal sky by a tight band of bigotry. As at Avignon, the Jewry was severely restricted in area. The population expanded in later times until it eventually approached two thousand, but the perimeter was never permitted to enlarge.
With the demolition of the ghetto, the aspect of Carpentras changed considerably. The city lies on a broad rise of ground, brilliant in sunlight. The cathedral, as the Church always wished, now dominates the skyline—although the synagogue remains the city’s most interesting building. A distinct air of well-being pervades Carpentras—not altogether pleasing. Carpentras is a ville fermée, a closed, self-centered provincial city on the order of Lyons and Bordeaux, unlike Marseilles or Avignon. The calculating faces of its shopkeepers seem indeed still to bear traces of the narrow smugness which once caused much pain to the residents of the Jewry.
Yet carpentras can be extremely pleasant. In place of the medieval ramparts, which rivaled Avignon’s, there is a circle of tree-lined boulevards. Beyond the city to the north and east, very near now and vivid, the foothills of the Mont Ventoux sweep upward from broad meadows.
How long Jews have lived here is a mystery. Since Carpentras is at some distance from the Rhone, the community may have been established much later than those along the river. But the town existed in ancient times, and it is possible that Jewish slavers led away the fettered Gauls who appear on the Roman arch, which dates from the reign of Augustus. Jews are known from an inscription to have penetrated to Peyruis, near Sisteron on the other side of the hills, by 352. In the Dauphiné, farther north and more inaccessible, Jews were settled at the latest in 894. But the earliest extant document which mentions the Carpentras community is a codex of rabbinical decisions, very likely compiled by Jacob Tarn, a grandson of the great Rashi of Troyes, and therefore probably written in the first half of the 12th century.
The rabbis of Carpentras subscribed to the codex, together with the rabbis and elders of Troyes, Auxerre, Reims, Paris, and Lyons, the major Jewish centers of medieval France. Thus it may be assumed that the community was already venerable, and its rabbis had by this time established their theological leadership in Provence. Carpentras long held this local supremacy in religious matters. After the Four Holy Communities stood alone in France, it remained their spiritual chief. Avignon, even though its population was usually slightly larger, looked to it, as did Cavaillon and L’lsle-sur-Sorgue, as the arbiter of doctrine. Avignon had its scientists and poets, Carpentras its learned commentators on the Pentateuch and the Talmud.
There was also a difference in the political status of the Jews of the two cities. At Carpentras they were liegemen of the Lord Bishop, rather than (if only in a nominal sense) serfs—as were the Jews of Avignon. This distinction theoretically gave the Carpentras Jews many rights, including freedom to leave the city if they wished. Yet it did not prevent their being forcibly expelled at some unknown date, for an unknown reason, in the 13th century. They were recalled in the 1260’s, however, and were residing in Carpentras when the papal officials took formal control of the Comtat Venaissin in 1274.
As the Pope’s subjects, the Jews were under the over-all jurisdiction of the Papal Rector of the province; but a charter of 1276, signed by the heads of sixty-four Jewish families,6 and which was invoked in a dispute as late as 1789, made it clear that they were still the Bishop’s men. In this charter they were accorded the title of cives—citizens—and as such given guarantees against arbitrary tax levies and mob violence. The Bishop was to receive in exchange a heavy yearly tribute in cash and kind. Among their obligations, the Jews were enjoined to deliver to the Bishop the untrimmed tongues of all the cattle they slaughtered, and to furnish bedding for his guests at the episcopal palace. If the terms seem severe, they were scarcely more so than those imposed on Christian burghers, who protested bitterly against the Bishop’s exactions. In fact, the arrangement worked well for half a century. It left the Jews free to regulate their internal affairs, which were administered by elected elders known as baylons. Property requirements made it impossible for poor Jews to stand for election; and therefore, in each of the other communities as well as at Carpentras (internal autonomy took virtually the same form in all four Jewries) the councils of baylons constituted self-perpetuating oligarchies of wealthy Jews, very similar to the municipal councils which governed Christians. The rabbis had no place in the civic government of the communities.
One of the most interesting articles of the charter of 1276, which is altogether one of the most illuminating documents of the Middle Ages, mentions both the urban and rural real estate of the Jews—a strong indication that no ghetto yet existed. It also speaks of a synagogue and of the possibility of its being rebuilt or remodeled. This temple stood on the street still known as the Rue de la Vieille-Juiverie, near the walls, in a situation very like that of the primitive Jewry of Avignon. Evidently it had been a Jewish street for ages.
In 1322 disaster fell. Two years previous, when the fanatic rabble known as the Pastoureaux staged massacres throughout France, Pope John XXII had loyally protected the Jews in his domains. During the plague that erupted in 1321 and 1322, he denied tales of contamination of the water supply, and again warded off pogroms. But late in 1322 he vacillated, and at last gave way to the hysteria. Refugees were crowding into the Comtat from the ravaged northern Jewries. Outraged, local Christians appealed to the Pope, who responded with the kind of caprice that often bent pontifical judgment of the Jews: he banished all Jews, the old residents with the newcomers, from the province, which fortunately did not include Avignon and southern Provence. The synagogues of the Comtat were demolished, and churches erected in their place. The Jews, compelled to leave on short notice, suffered heavy financial loss.
They were permitted to return at the end of 1343, twenty-one years later. Only twelve of the original sixty-four families came back to Carpentras. They were impoverished, and the Bishop (who, since they were a source of revenue, wished them to stay) eased their obligations until such time as the number of families reached ninety. For an annual payment of six pounds of ginger and pepper, or the very considerable equivalent in money, he also permitted them a synagogue and a cemetery.
The Jews did not resettle in the Old Jewry. Instead—it would seem voluntarily—they occupied the Rue de la Muse in the center of the city. There they rented a building from a Christian notary, Bertrand Pauli, which served as a synagogue until the landlord asked them to move, in 1367. Thereupon three Jewish dignitaries, Isaac Tauroci, Jacob Tamani, and Caracausa Bonafos, presented to the authorities a request for a permanent house of worship. The request was modest enough. The Jews asked only that the edifice be equal in size to the temple destroyed in 1322, which had measured no more than forty-five feet in length and twenty-six feet in width and height. When permission was finally granted, the length was reduced to thirty-three feet, and the Jews were warned that their ceremonies must be “no more beautiful, ample, and pompous” than those held in the old synagogue.
The authorization contained another provision to which little significance may have been attached at the time. It specified that the new synagogue be located in a street where more Jews lived than Christians. As it turned out, a suitable site was found near the building just vacated in the Rue de la Muse. Perhaps it was the same building: the eviction and subsequent proceedings may have been merely a device to enable Pauli to sell the property.
Construction of a new building—or refurbishment of the old one—began immediately; no records of the project have survived. It seems possible that the Jews not only erected a completely new structure, but also provided the necessary skilled labor themselves. Although it was already 1367, well into the Middle Ages, and Jewish craftsmanship was in decline, a Jewish stonecutter and a mason are known to have lived in Avignon in the 14th century and to have worked at Arles—which was ten miles farther from their homes than Carpentras.
What dramatically distinguished the synagogue from those of antiquity or of modern times, and even from contemporary structures in central European cities such as Prague, was its tightly compressed plan. Rather than a generous open hall, freely developed architecturally on an adequate site, this building had to make the most of a tiny lot. Accordingly, a two-story scheme was adopted, with the upper floor reserved for men and the lower for women. Since the height of the building was also restricted, additional space could be got only by digging. Therefore at Carpentras, as elsewhere, the lower level was not a true ground floor, but a half-cellar to which one descended by a flight of steps. This allowed the men’s chamber above to be relatively high-ceilinged and thus achieve an effect of relative grandeur. It also honored a Biblical formula of the Diaspora, when temples were first placed slightly below ground level to echo the somber music of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.”
The two-story arrangement was usual in the West during the later Middle Ages. It was employed at Rouen in Normandy, as well as at Carpentras and its sister communities in the south. At Lincoln in England, much altered but partly intact, survives a similar and very fascinating 12th-century structure called “Jews’ Court,” which Helen Rosenau has shown to have been a synagogue: the main feature of its upper floor is a simple niche which housed the Scrolls of the Law. Possibly it owes its traditional name to the fact that it served also as a law court. In their confined situations, medieval synagogues were used for a variety of purposes. The two stories gave the small buildings a needed flexibility and privacy for different functions. Their thick walls and narrow windows could make them doughty little fortresses too, if need arose.
The upper portion of the Carpentras synagogue of 1367 has vanished, but beneath the beautiful room that replaced it in the 18th century the Gothic vaults of the dark, half-subterranean women’s synagogue hold staunchly. Here, by candlelight, the women followed the men’s services through a vent in the ceiling. They also had an aged rabbi of their own, who led their responses in a Judeo-Provençal patois, for unlike the men they knew no Hebrew. At Avignon, where the synagogue was similarly divided, a Christian visitor7 in 1599 noted that the women’s rabbi was blind.
For nearly a century the Jews of Carpentras worshipped in the synagogue without fear of molestation. The Rue de la Muse in time became known as the Juiverie de la Muse, and later simply as the Juiverie. Some Christian residences and shops remained among the majority of Jewish ones. The population of the community had increased again: forty-two family heads contributed to the repair of the cathedral in 1400 (they helped pay for the elegant south portal, in flamboyant Gothic, which is the outstanding element of the church today, and is called the Porte Juive). The departure of the Popes for Rome had caused a financial decline, but this was felt more keenly at Avignon than in the Comtat. The Vicar General at Avignon and the Rector at Carpentras were invariably Italian, and less disposed to be fanatics than the French. Conditions were not perfect, but could have been worse. Expulsions continued sporadically in the north: from the French-speaking provinces of the Holy Roman Empire in 1365, from Lorraine in 1409, from the city of Lyons (where Jews had been allowed to remain after the final exile from France) in 1420; there were few pockets of tolerance left in the West.
The Jews had reason to pray. And each year, in the autumn dusk, two virgins stood in the small synagogue garden, and held a white thread and a black thread against the sky. When they could no longer distinguish the colors, the long Day of Atonement would begin.
After eighty years of tranquility, during which the community gradually spread from the Jewry to three adjacent streets, and neglected to wear the signs of infamy, wrangling again broke out between the Jews and Christians of Carpentras in the middle of the 15th century. From 1450 on, the town records are filled with terse comments concerning the Jews, so cryptic, however, that it is difficult to know what the real disputes were about. Among the problems dealt with were taxes, allegations of unfair practices by Jewish brokers, a charge that the kosher abattoir was close to the Christian one. In 1455, apparently in a move to compel the Jews to yield certain concessions, the authorities threatened to transfer their quarter to some other part of the city.
The arrival of a new Rector, Angelo Geraldini, temporarily saved the situation. The Christians carried their case to Pius II at Rome, and in two Bulls of 1459 he made it clear that the Jews were not to forget their proper humility: he renewed several old pariah laws, and reimposed the rouella or little wheel. Christian emotion was stirred up when a rival delegation, led by Salves de l’Argentière and Vides de Lates, traveled to Rome and obtained abrogation of these edicts.
The residential clause of the synagogue agreement of 1367, seemingly innocuous in itself, appeared now to be open to conflicting interpretations. There were outcries in the city council that the Jewish quarter had been unlawfully and needlessly enlarged. Negotiations followed, and a compromise was arranged; then on Friday, June 13, 1460, riots shook the city. If there were other motives behind this outburst, anti-Semitism was doubtless the strongest. A mob pillaged the Jewry. The authorities, in response to popular clamor, reconsidered the settlement just made. Six months later the community was confined to the Juiverie and a single adjoining street—approximately half its former area.
Christian zealots were not satisfied. Additional complaints were heard, and in 1485 a tragic event brought matters to a head. The County of Provence, which except for the Comtat remained the last French- or Provençal-speaking territory open to Jews, expelled its ancient communities. Refugees began entering the papal enclave. The influx at Carpentras was particularly heavy. The new arrivals overflowed the area alloted to the Jews, and sought lodgings among Christians. It was difficult to maintain order. For some time it had been necessary to post special police in the Jewish quarter to prevent violence by the peasants who came to the city to market and celebrate the grape harvest. This October it was scarcely possible to control them. The burghers, who had never been happy about paying armed men to defend Jews, sought to rid themselves of this vexing autumnal expense. Simultaneously, they hoped to solve the problem of Jewish expansion to other parts of the city. The council suggested to the Jews that, in their own interest, they should be limited to a single street protected by security gates.
The Jews replied that although they found the solution distasteful, they were nevertheless disposed to accept it. They were weary of the onslaughts of the drunken harvesters, and they wished to be absolved of the charge that they were a financial burden to the rest of the city. They themselves drew up the document which made the Jewry a true ghetto.
The term “ghetto,”8 however, was not used. It appears only once, at the late date of 1736, among all the official papers which mention the Jewry of Carpentras. To both Jews and non-Jews, the Juiverie was known always as la carriero—Provençal for “the Street”—or, in French, la carrière. (From the Italian carriera, a place closed by barriers, originally for the purpose of horse racing.) In Hebrew the name for street is mesilla, and was used in the community’s records. But because, as their contacts with outside Jewry grew rare, the Comtadins changed s sounds, and sometimes th, to f, it was pronounced mefilla.
Among the ten articles of the ghetto agreement, the Jews insisted on several points:
- That the Carrière have at each end a gate which could be locked and barred from within. The gates were to remain open by day, except in case of danger; at night they were to be closed, providing no Christians were still within.
- That the doors and windows of Christian buildings facing the Carrière should be either walled up or barred.
- That the Jews should have a year in which to divest themselves of their property outside the Carrière, which they might rent to Christians in the interim.
- That although Christians should have free passage of the Carrière by day, ecclesiastical processions through the street were to be discontinued. In such processions, the clerks accompanying the priests had taken the occasion to pelt the Jews with stones.
The last seems not to have been acceded to, and the Jews were to experience much woe from future processions. The other articles were approved successively by the Rector, the Cardinal-Legate at Avignon, and Pope Innocent VIII in March, October, and December of 1487. Early in 1488, construction of the pointed Gothic portals closing in the Jews began. They stood until the 19th century.
The Jews found themselves enclosed in a street 270 feet long and dog-legged in shape. At the bend it widened slightly to form a small open place from which the synagogue, surrounded by a cluster of other buildings, could be entered. Overhead, the houses rose ever taller, until they reached an average of seven and eight stories. In the year 1743 there were some 50 such tenements lining the narrow street, divided into 168 apartments. The population was usually about 1,200. Occasionally the construction gave way and houses fell, burying their occupants in wreckage. The Jews were forbidden by papal edict to chant or carry tapers during their funeral processions, once these had reached the Christian streets outside the Carrière, on their way to the cemetery. By another pontifical decree, strictly enforced, Jewish tombstones were not permitted to be dignified by inscriptions.
It was impossible, the Jews soon found, to keep the Carrière clean. They appealed in vain for the right to a fountain; during three hundred years they were forced to send outside for water. The drainage system was an abomination. The street, even under the brilliant sun, lay in darkness. Only the poorest Jews, forced to live on the roofs, enjoyed the Provençal sky. Rather than carry their provisions up the many flights of stairs, they hoisted them with ropes and pulleys.
Under the pressure of the Counter Reformation conditions grew steadily worse. The 16th and 17th centuries were the most oppressive in history for the Jews in the Catholic countries of Western Europe. In 1525 Pope Clement VII, incensed that they were concealing the yellow badges which they had been ordered by law to display prominently, substituted a more conspicuous sign of infamy: the yellow hat. A fine of one hundred ducats—about $250 of our money—was the penalty for non-compliance. Boys were to commence wearing their pointed bonnets at fourteen, girls to attach yellow ribbons to their coifs at the age of twelve.
Demands for the expulsion of the Jews from the Comtat and Avignon never ceased. Twice they were successful: Pius V in 1569 and Clement VIII in 1593 issued orders of banishment which were at least partly enforced before they were annulled. Repeatedly, in 1606, 1612, 1614, 1617, 1618, 1620, 1622, 1623, and 1638—and still once more in 1693—Rome was petitioned by diehards to expel the Jews; but the requests were denied. There was now no place in the West for the Jews to go, except to the Protestant north, or beyond the Rhine to the communities of the Ashkenazim. Only the rich could afford the long journeys, hindered by a profusion of border regulations. The ghettos of Italy were even more miserable and overcrowded than those of southern France. In Spain and Portugal, autos-da-fé were in progress. Some Marranos escaped detection in the Crown territories of France, at Paris and other cities, especially Bayonne in the southwest where a small colony lived openly, but their existence was perilous: Louis XIII reaffirmed in 1615 the edict of exile of 1394, which carried dread punishment for evasion.
The Four Holy Communities at last stood completely alone. The small groups of Jews who had lived since the early Middle Ages in the villages of the Comtat—at Malaucène, Valabrègue, Monteux, and other outlying places—had been chased into the carrières of the cities. Even here, however, there was no real peace. The Holy See twice a month compelled the Jews to listen to conversionist sermons designed to prove that they were no longer the Chosen People. Adolph Kober9 has described these painful sessions, which sometimes turned into fiery debates. More often, the Jews attended with studied indifference, or cracked nuts, while impassioned clergymen—Father Justin of Carpentras was the most dedicated of these orators—harangued them. More outrageous still was the baptism of Jewish children criminally spirited away from their parents; apologies followed, but under canon law these child converts could not be returned to the Carrière.
The Jews never surrendered. The cycles of Holy Days were observed with devotion and joy. Each year the drama of Purim was enacted; Esther of Carpentras has been embodied by Darius Milhaud and Armand Lunel into a modern opera. At the Passover table, the family sang the “Had Gadya” in Provençal; and the father recited over the unleavened bread: “Iço es lou fan d’affliction que manjavoun nosti predecessur en terro de Misraïm—Here is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The matzoth were prepared in a community oven built into the substructure of the synagogue; it has survived together with its appurtenances: the long-handled wooden shovels and the massive stone kneading tables, donated by Gad of Digne in 1652. The Jews, in a region fond of pastry, also baked condoles, cakes made with sweet wine and oil. Many Christians, forbidden by law to taste the delicacies, enjoyed them in secret.
In theory, if not in fact, all amicable intercourse between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited. The more enlightened members of both groups refused to accept such segregation, as is eloquently proven in the correspondence between the great humanist and nobleman, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and Solomon Azubi, rabbi of Carpentras from 1617 to 1635. Rabbi Azubi, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, was one of the many noted scholars and theologians called from other countries by the Comtadin Jews. In an effort to keep their intellectual standard high, and their links with world Jewry intact, they imported rabbis from Amsterdam and Prague, and from cities in Germany and Poland. Another Jewish humanist, Juda Messer Leon of Avignon, in the 17th century wrote a rather garbled version in Hebrew of the story of Petrarch and Laura.
The Jews did not fail to relish whatever social and intellectual delights they were allowed. In addition to holidays, the residents of the Carrière of Carpentras celebrated two great local fêtes at the end of November and the beginning of April. Events unknown, in 1512 and 1682, were the occasions for extraordinary celebrations, with special thanksgiving prayers; kosher wine flowed at weddings, births, and circumcisions, and was dispensed at a tavern in the Carrière, which seems always to have been kept by women. The wine was made from the grapes of a vineyard adjacent to the cemetery. To go outside the walls to tend the vines gave the Jews a rare chance to relax in the countryside. There is an instance of a party of Jews picnicking outside the city on a Sunday, only to be reproved by the clergy for keeping the Christian coachman from mass.
Repeatedly, even when the rest of the populace was ready to cease bickering, the clergy exasperated the Jews by displaying the cross in the Carrière. Once, as the chant-ting clerks passed their homes, the Jews opened the sewage taps; in revenge, they were heavily fined. On another occasion, the Jews were accused of garbing a crucifix in a harlequin’s costume, capping it with a yellow bonnet, and parading it the length of the Carrière. For this sacrilege the Bishop ordered them to erect a marble cross before the cathedral, where it stood for two centuries until a Tree of Liberty was planted in its place in 1793. Jewish women were no more cowed than the men. They would spit irreverently when provoked by Christians, and earn public floggings for their courage.
Today, in her kitchen-utensils shop on the Rue des Halles, Mademoiselle Blanche Mossé—the only descendant of the old community who still lives in Carpentras—carries on the tradition. This proud, brave, scornful spinster stayed through the Nazi occupation, and by sheer moral force, rallying the other citizens around her, saved the synagogue. It is her synagogue. She remains aloof from the small colony of East Europeans who have prayed there since the end of the war. To her, “they are not Jews”—at least they are not on the order of her father, Armand Mossé, the erudite historian of the Carrière, or her ancestor Salomon Mossé who in 1786, possessing a fortune of 100,000 livres, was one of its wealthiest men, or of countless other Mossés, going back to the 13th-century family rolls, and further, into antiquity. The tourist must apply to her to see the synagogue, for she will not permit anyone else to act as guide.
The austere façade of the synagogue—an unadorned wall pierced by a single door—remains as unobtrusive in the center of Carpentras as it was meant to be. Centuries of persecution had taught the Jews of Carpentras, by the time the new synagogue was begun in 1741, that prudence must be the better part of their architectural wisdom. Today the synagogue, once in the thick of the ghetto, stands exposed as the community never dreamed; stripped of the surrounding houses of the Carrière, it seems excessively plain. It fronts on the Place de la Mairie, one of the many pleasant squares in France which have supplanted scabrous medieval quarters. The sunlight, pouring into what was once a dark ghetto, catches the usual inscription on the near-by city hall: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Inside the synagogue’s doorway is a modern vestibule (rebuilt in the restoration of 1930) whose staircase rises above the primitive women’s synagogue, which is completely hidden by later construction and no longer visited. At the head of the stairs, well away from the street, is the real entrance.
The doors open to a wonderful display of light: the precise and delicate light of the 18th century, entering through large upper windows, and passing across galleries into a lofty and sumptuous room. An effect of elegance pervades the rich classical detail of fluted columns and carven garlands, the handsome balustrades of the galleries, the wainscoting and ironwork, the chandeliers of crystal and bronze. The décor is profuse and gay and polite—as in a Watteau. It is Louis Quinze—at its best a winning enough style, for all its artifice. In this provincial southern town, it is captivating.
Directly across from the entrance, dominating the long eastern wall—the side of Jerusalem—is a resplendent Ark of the Law, neoclassical in style, showing in its marbled and gilded stucco a Mediterranean liveliness and warmth. Provence is close to Italy, and the great baroque Ark of Padua was not far away when this one was designed. But the preciseness and delicacy of the proportions are altogether French.
The central unit of the Ark itself, framed by engaged Ionic columns, and hung with velvets, is set off from the rest by a low pedestal and a grille of finely wrought iron. To either side of the Ark, set in large formal panels and wreathed in gilt moldings, are the Tablets of the Law. At each end is a niche: the one on the far left holds a vase which Madame de Pompadour might have treasured, but which must hold some hermetic Jewish significance; on the far right, a golden and tiny armchair, upholstered in red satin, carries a Hebrew inscription embroidered in gold thread—this is the symbolic throne of the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah.10
The ark determines the scale of the rest of this lordly room. The line of its cornice is continued in the skillfully turned balustrades of the upper galleries which run to north and south, where they cross the short sides of the building, and then, completing their circuit of the vessel, return to meet on the west. Here, mounted above the entrance way on four Doric pillars, opposite the Ark, is the synagogue’s other major feature: the bima, the elevated dais from which the services were sung, and the Torah—spread beneath the canopy of an elaborate lectern—was read to the congregation below. This liturgical arrangement, with its possibilities for drama, was used in all four of the Holy Communities. Although a similar scheme was employed in some Italian synagogues, it was apparently a local creation, designed to meet the special needs of the Comtadin Jewry, whose liturgy, as Cecil Roth has shown, developed quite independently from that of the rest of the Diaspora during centuries of isolation.
Such a synagogue, admirably designed, and spacious in its proportions, had long been desired at Carpentras. Until the 18th century, however, the ecclesiastical authorities had refused the Jews permission to enlarge, much less rebuild, their house of worship of 1367. Some repairs were made in 1677, and possibly at unrecorded earlier times; it was not until 1714 that any substantial alteration of the venerable structure was allowed: a wall was opened and a few extra square feet of precious space was gained. In 1730 the lighting of the men’s synagogue on the upper level was improved by the construction of an octagonal lantern tower; it was made of plaster, very likely a flimsy affair. At this time the decoration of the building was also renewed with plaster ornamentation.
The joy in the Carrière may be imagined when the Bishop, Monsignor Malachi d’Inguimbert, at last authorized extensive alteration and enlargement in 1740. The Jews seized this chance—it is doubtful whether the Bishop had so ambitious an undertaking in mind—to reconstruct the building virtually from the foundations upward. The women were to be given new accommodations11 aboveground; their lightless ancient chamber was to be abandoned, but since its vaults were solid, it was retained as a structural support. The bakery, too, was to be saved and incorporated with the foundations. Deeper down still, the women’s ritual bath, the mikveh, hewn with its dark twisting staircase from the living rock, would also remain.
The community had the wisdom to engage one of the most gifted architects of the time, a Christian—no Jews now practiced architecture in the West: Antoine d’Allemand, royal architect and engineer to the King of France. This nobleman (he was the Seigneur de Fenouillet) was also rumored to be a Free Mason. No investigation, fortunately, was made by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was still in operation at Carpentras, for d’AIlemand’s subsequent loyalty to the Jews might point to the truth of the rumor.
No better man could have been found for the job. The Jews, from their cemetery and vineyard outside the walls, had a close view of his most recent project, a majestic aqueduct conceived on a scale which recalled Roman construction. In designing the synagogue, the architect’s one regret must have been that he would have to confine his imagination to the interior, and forsake a façade. The elegance he was capable of giving to the exterior of a building can be seen in the quietly rich façade of the Hôtel-Dieu of Carpentras, which was executed a few years afterward.
Work began on the synagogue in October 1741, with “a great number of workers”—probably all Christian—under d’Allemand’s supervision. The Bishop attended the casting of the foundations, in order to make sure the Jews would not exceed the new dimensions allowed them. For once Monsignor d’Inguimbert was affable. He remarked that the Jews were probably taking liberties, but allowed them to proceed nevertheless. The Jews were to learn to their sorrow that this avowed anti-Semite could not be trusted.
As the temple rose, the Jews found that they had made the mistake of wishing it to be beautiful and filled with light. A further mistake was in wishing it to be lofty, as the Talmud states a synagogue should be. Angry recriminations issued from zealous Catholics—li zelanti cattolici della Citta, as they styled themselves in Italian in a letter of protest to the Holy Office. They charged that the synagogue was “much more magnificent and vast than its predecessor” and, though not yet at its full height, so “dominated the whole of the city, that its superb mass could be seen from miles away.” The Jews had, in fact, raised it only from twenty-eight to forty feet, but this made it taller than two neighboring churches. “Such a situation,” the letter concluded, “should not be tolerated, for it would seem that the Jews, reduced to servitude by their own fault, would wish to demonstrate—by this structure—their superiority to Christians.”
The reverend Father Inquisitor and the Bishop did not fail to agree. An inquiry was held. D’Allemand, plainly reluctant to see his work mutilated, defended it on technical grounds: the new roof height was necessary, he testified, in order to protect the structure from rain water draining off adjacent buildings. His objection was immediately ruled out: the old synagogue had withstood the rains for centuries. Any objection would have been ruled out—this was a malicious comedy being staged before the kangaroo court. It was claimed that the synagogue rose higher than the Cathedral of Saint-Siffrein, which like many provincial episcopal seats, is a comparatively small monument. The Jews replied that the Cathedral was actually taller by some twelve feet.12 They added that they were poor, and could not afford to demolish the new building, as some Christians were demanding. To this it was answered that, except for Livorno, the Carrière was the wealthiest of ghettos. Had not the Jews already expended an immense sum on the construction? The question was embarrassing: by 1743, some 30,000 livres—a large amount for the times—had gone to the temple.
The church’s decision came as expected. The imposing roof was removed, and the walls reduced by a total of fifteen feet. This was found to be lower than the old synagogue. Now it was the Jews who cried out angrily. Monsignor d’Inguimbert equivocated, but in September 1743, finally made concessions. The walls were raised slightly and the interior covered with a temporary shelter against the seasonal rains, which had begun to fall.
Still other difficulties had arisen. The windows of the synagogue, opened up into formerly blank walls, were declared an inconvenience by the Order of the White Penitents, whose church of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Charité backed on the Carrière. The Jewish services, the Penitents claimed, interfered with their own ceremonies. The Jews promised to chant softly, but the splendid east windows above the Ark (since reopened) were walled up. The Jews opened new windows elsewhere, only to have them blocked. The Bishop personally examined every modification. He brought experts with him who minutely measured the walls, as they were lowered again and raised. Costs grew, but the Jews strove desperately to preserve what they could of the original design. By 1748 it seems to have been much as it is today, with a permanent roof in place.
Still the affair dragged on. Quarreling had not ended when Monsignor d’Inguimbert died in 1753. The citizens of his native Carpentras, whom he had provided with a hospital and a library, erected a marble tomb for him, in the chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu. His bust shows a benign clergyman, accompanied by the allegorical figures of Charity nursing her infant, and Knowledge weeping.
Forty-three years passed between the commencement of the synagogue and its consecration in 1784. The community had put its soul into the structure—few religious monuments of the 18th century can boast its peculiar intensity. It shows the underlying seriousness of which the Louis Quinze style was capable, and which has been noticed too rarely. Here it achieves an impressiveness of purpose which was perhaps unattainable in the pleasure houses of the nobility or, for different reasons, in most churches of the period. The synagogue, like many Louis XV churches—the Chapel of the Pénitents Noirs, for example, in Avignon—has been described as “profane,” and compared to a salon. But its courteous mood and cheerful detail nowhere give way to frivolity. It speaks the gracious idiom of its time for the reason that it knew no other.
This temple, constructed at the end of the ancien régime, was a symbol of things to come. Once again, Jews were erecting spacious open halls, letting in the light wherever they could, as they had in antiquity. The new synagogues, drawing inspiration not only from baroque Italy, perhaps not even primarily from it, but from Protestant structures such as the lost Huguenot Temple of Charenton, near Paris, looked forward and not back. They anticipated the separation of church and state which the Enlightenment had made inevitable. The Provençal scola of Carpentras was part of a much wider movement, most conspicuous perhaps in the synagogues of Amsterdam and London, but present too, in the construction of the Touro Synagogue at Providence in 1763, in the New World.
From Carpentras it is fifteen miles south to the third of the Holy Communities: L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. As its name reveals, the city is an island embraced by two arms of the river Sorgue which flows down from its spectacular source at the Fountain of the Vaucluse, and spreads across the fertile country in twenty branches as it goes westward to the Rhone. The city, which has been called “the Venice of Provence,” is musical with flowing water. Canals pass beneath the spreading trees through the beautiful Renaissance quarters, whose mansions now are dilapidated and largely deserted. The development of a modern French textile industry has stopped the waterwheels in their turning, and the thread that was once a source of the town’s prosperity is now manufactured in the smoky cities of the north.
With the town’s commercial importance has also disappeared all trace of its Jewish community. Not even the size and exact location of the Carrière are known. A bare open space, called the Place de la Juiverie, defines the general area in which some three hundred and fifty Jews were living at the time of the Revolution. Probably there were never more than that; the records of the community have been lost, along with those of the entire municipality. That there was a synagogue in the Carrière, and that close relations were maintained with the Jewry of Carpentras, is all that is definitely known. Doubtless the community was ancient, although the earliest surviving document to mention it dates from 1296. It must have had some outstanding scholars: in 1633 Rabbi Azubi of Carpentras came to deliver an elegy for his friend, the learned Chaim Judah ben Jacob Sègre.
L’Isle, now so somnolent, was the scene, in 1773, of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Comtadin Jewry. From across the Rhine Jews had begun to re-enter France, and a colony of Ashkenazim lived more or less openly in Paris, together with rival groups of Sephardic and Comtadin Jews who had also discovered that the police were no longer strictly enforcing the expulsion edicts. Those Jews—most of them poor—who failed to find lodgings in the capital descended on the papal possessions. But the Four Communities, with troubles of their own, were reluctant to admit them, and voted alms to buy them off and send them on their way.
On September 18, 1773, a band of about one hundred wanderers, “speaking all the tongues of Europe,” burst into the ghetto of L’Isle. The community consented to take in those who were ill or pregnant—in all, about twenty. The remainder it tried to appease with a gift of twenty-five sous each. These left, but returned the following day, their numbers swollen by additional unfortunates who had been refused admittance to the other three Carrières. The refugees were desperate to the point of violence. They forced the gates of the city, and swarmed through the streets. Soldiers arrived from Avignon to expel them, but after camping in the countryside for two days, they were back. Again troops were called in to restore order, and the entire band was evicted from the territory.
On October 8, one hundred of them again appeared before the city of L’Isle and attempted to break down the gates. By the following day they had succeeded, and they ran through the streets attacking the local Jews, who were forced to barricade themselves within the ghetto. Grenadiers from Avignon once more chased the wanderers from the province, this time for good.
Times were changing. The Carrières had begun to empty. Population was shifting, as yet barely perceptibly, from the Four Communities to a number of cities in addition to Paris, all in theory forbidden to Jews: Lyons, Bordeaux, Nantes, Nîmes, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Béziers. Still no one realized how mighty a social and political upheaval was at hand, least of all, perhaps, the Jews. At Cavaillon, on the Durance seven miles south of L’Isle, in the same year the riots took place, 1773, a new synagogue had been built, as if the community expected to stay forever.
Mounted above the great round arch of the Carrière portal, the synagogue of Cavaillon floats as a vision of lightness and refinement. Here, finally, is a Jewish façade, so ingenious and enchanting that perhaps it has been worth the centuries of waiting. Seen from the far end of the Rue Hébraïque, across the fifty-yard distance of the Carrière, the high entrance terrace—adorned with a magnificent five-arched balustrade of wrought iron—seems inaccessible. The architect has placed the terrace a full story above the street, and he has cleverly concealed the approach to it by placing a staircase behind a wall at the left. With the arch open beneath it, and the blue Provençal sky above, the white temple seems to sit in the air, freed from the ghetto, as an incarnation of Jewish aspiration and idealism.
As the synagogue is approached, it seems to rise higher, its proportions gaining in grace and vivacity without losing vigor. All has been carefully considered: the display of ironwork against beautifully tailored stone, the baroque cartouche above the entrance—a conscious touch of richness which emphasizes the handsome exchange of proportions between the tall, chaste doorway, and the calm line of the windows above.
It is, nevertheless, a small structure, meant to serve a community of two hundred, who seem always to have enjoyed slightly better conditions than the Jews of the larger cities. Here, too, of course, the Carrière was a true ghetto, locked every night, but there was less congestion, the street was broader to admit the sun, and the houses not so tall. Many of the buildings have long since been removed, to give more open space and greenery than existed in the 18th century; but if the Carrière was not so pleasant as would appear today, there was not the extreme wretchedness of Carpentras and Avignon. The Jews were confined to their single enclosed street in 1453; they had evidently been living there since the preceding century. Earlier still, they had occupied a primitive Jewry in another part of the city, which was in existence at the end of the 11th century—and almost certainly before.
By 1498 the synagogue which once stood on the emplacement of the present one was in poor condition, and the Bishop of Cavaillon authorized the erection of a new building, which in turn was refurbished in 1615; its basic structure apparently remained unchanged until 1772,13 when the present synagogue was begun. Two years later the work was completed. The inscription over the doorway quotes in bold Hebrew characters from Psalm 118: “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter—1774.”
To enter this small room—it measures only twenty by thirty feet—is to step literally two centuries into the past. The building has been repaired on several occasions, and given a new roof, but otherwise it remains essentially as it was when the Jews of Cavaillon first stepped across the threshold. The fine light of the 18th century plays as delicately over the carved wainscots as at Carpentras, but the subdued intimacy, the hushed grays and green, evokes an atmosphere of a Fragonard. The decoration, more lively and more humorous, is rococo. The ironwork, light as filigree, spirals upward in the balustrades which follow the stairs to the gallery above and then sinuously trail downward again on the other side. The baldaquin lectern, from which the services were conducted, in an arrangement similar to that at Carpentras, is entwined with carven roses. The Ark, standing below on the east, is flanked by slender Corinthian columns, and surmounted by a corbeille de fruits, the melons, grapes, cherries, and peaches of the region. Hidden everywhere among the carvings are musical instruments: violins and flutes and tambours.
This superlative craftsmanship is the work of the Christian artisans of the Comtat; perhaps the greatest of them was François Isbard, the metalsmith, who spent three years on the ironwork. Christians also designed the building: a father and son named Armelin, master masons of Cavaillon, drew up the plans, which were later approved by an architect at Avignon. Even the financing was undertaken by Christian bankers, Pierre and Barnabeé Desandreé of Avignon, who loaned the community 6,000 livres.
Just a few years ago, after standing unused for half a century, the synagogue came into its own for a single evening. Candles were placed in the bronze chandeliers, and the eternal lamp was lit. The Grand Rabbi of Marseilles led a procession from the Ark to the upper gallery, and a service was sung. And then, in the candlelight, as the shadows lifted on the paneled walls, the music of Mozart was played.
High in the shadows, perched on a console carved to signify a bank of clouds, stood the Throne of Elijah. For centuries during the Diaspora, as synagogue replaced synagogue, the Jews had appealed to the Lord for the Messiah promised to them by the Prophet. The Messiah had not come. But in 1789, when hope seemed almost gone, came the portentous deliverance of the French Revolution.
The fresh wind of liberation blew open the gates of the ghettos, and the people of France wrested back their territory from the Church. The badge of infamy became a badge of honor. The Jews refused to remove their yellow hats, as they joined the Republicans on the barricades. The synagogues became Jacobin Clubs and Temples of Reason. Many of the precious lamps and candelabras were sent to the foundry for cannon, as the Republic fought to survive. Gold and silver Torah ornaments were cast into coins at the mint. In vain, and too late, the cities of the Comtat pleaded with the Jews to stay. But the Carrières were almost deserted now, and their demolition had begun. The Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 would remove virtually all trace of them except the synagogues. “Leave us our ruins!” cried a solitary Jew at L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. No one paid heed. The Four Holy Communities had left the Comtat Venaissin forever.
1 For a discussion of recent literature concerning the Dura synagogue, see the review by Moses Hadas, “Pagan and Jew in the Ancient World,” in COMMENTARY of July 1957.
2 A transliteration of the Hebrew word for “rock,” which indicates that he was called de Rocha in Provencal or, in French, de la Roche, and that his family had originated in the ancient Jewry of Roquemaure (“Moorish Rock”) on the Rhone ten miles above Avignon. Members of the family later emigrated to the Netherlands, where there were two physicians named Rocamora at Amsterdam to the 17th century. It was quite usual for medieval Jews to take the names of their dwelling places. Two eminent descendants of the communities at Milhaud and Monteux, villages near Carpentras, are the composer Darius Milhaud and the conductor Pierre Monteux.
3 The true facts are more fascinating than the legend. Bénézet, hardly a shepherd boy, was the medieval equivalent of a modern engineer, the head of an order of bridge-building friars who left impressive examples of their skill and diligence throughout southern France; their outstanding monument remained the bridge at Avignon.
4 Not all Jews were as unselfish as the doctor Videz. In 1721, after plague had erupted at Marseilles, strict precautions were taken at Avignon. But Mordecai Delpuget had purchased contaminated goods and secretly brought them to his house, thereby causing his death, his wife's, and those of seventy-one other Jews inside the ghetto.
5 In the Révue des Etudes Juives of 1886.
6 The document has survived, together with the signatures. The community was composed largely of southern families, bearing the names of Jewries in Provence and Languedoc: Avignon, Narbonne, Lunel, Monteux, Orange, Montpellier, Carcassonne. Others had purely Hebrew names: Cohen and Abraham.
7 It was usual for curious strangers to inspect the ghettos. In 1730 the Prince de Conti was delighted by his visit to the synagogue of Carpentras. Stendhal, when he passed through Avignon, did not fail to notice the beauty of the women of the Juiverie.
8 The origin of the term has been much debated. The famous ghetto of Venice was originally situated near a gun foundry, gietto in Italian, and this has been accepted by some scholars as its source. Another possibility, as Abram Leon Sachar has noted, is that it is a degeneration of Judaca, one of the many names given to Jewish quarters (in France, Juiverie and Juaterie were used most frequently). However, it was only into the later “ghetto” that Jews were herded by legal compulsion.
9 His article in Jewish Social Studies of October 1944 is excellent. For an account of the disintegration of the Communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, see the thorough study by Zosa Szajkowski in the same periodical, January 1944.
10 Although Elijah is traditionally the patron of circumcisions, the thrones which existed for the Prophet in the synagogues of the Comtat were never taken from their niches for such ceremonies. They signify only the Messianic tradition, and are quite different from the “Elijah chairs” on which babies were placed for circumcisions elsewhere in Europe.
11 These remained strictly separated from the men's. The women were placed in a narrow passage, hidden by lattice-work, behind the arcades on the north side of the room. In the last days of the community the women occupied the upper galleries, which in the 18th century were reserved for the choir of men and boys.
12 It is now impossible to say precisely what their height was at the time; but the argument seems reasonable.
13 The surviving ground floor beneath the present synagogue serves as its base. Next to the portal of the Carrière is a bakery in an excellent state of preservation which, it is hoped, will soon become a museum for the Jewish antiquities of the region. Other notable local collections of Jewish artifacts are at the museum of Carpentras and the Museon Arlaten at Aries. The synagogues of Carpentras and Cavaillon have been classified as national monuments and their care in the future is assured.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The Four Holy Communities:The Jewries of Medieval Provence
Must-Reads from Magazine
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.