Jews have always disagreed, sometimes bitterly, over everything from Israel to kashrut. But where once we would denounce and decry the views of our ideological opponents, in the past two decades we began to challenge their very right to air them. Institutions were picketed if they hosted a speaker on the “wrong” side of the ideological spectrum. Calls to block various organizations and their leaders from communal coalitions became more common — all, perversely, in the name of Jewish “solidarity.”
The Jewish community always reflects wider society, and this tendency to excommunicate ideological opponents is another symptom of “cancel culture.” That’s what critics, often but not always on the right, call efforts to quash the career or reputations of people whose opinions run afoul of one orthodoxy or another. This is the tendency condemned in a recent open letter signed by a diverse group of writers, including JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, saying that the “censoriousness” of the mob is leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.”
Critics of the letter say its signers represent “elites” who fear that their political narratives are being wrested away from them by those — women, people of color, the LGBT community — who have lacked representation in newsrooms, boardrooms, university classrooms, and political offices.
There is truth on both sides of this debate. Social media has enabled ugly efforts at character assassination unthinkable before the rise of Facebook and Twitter — what Bari Weiss, in her scathing resignation letter to her bosses at The New York Times opinion pages, called “the digital thunderdome.” Critics intentionally distort tweets to turn their confused or sloppy writers into public enemies. Calls for apologies quickly turn to calls for resignations, firings, and ostracism.
And yet a new generation of thinkers and activists have set forth progressive notions of sexual and racial equality that were a long time coming. They are demanding that cultural gatekeepers consider how they perpetuate inequality and silence the powerless, sometimes in the name of “free speech.” Critics of “cancel culture” can also be notoriously thin-skinned, dismissing legitimate criticism as “mob rule.”
Jews are found — and victimized — on all sides of cancel culture. In some ways we pioneered a version of cancel culture on college campuses, where numerous groups are devoted to policing the discourse on Israel and seek to make pariahs of faculty and students who deviate from their own pro-Israel ideologies. On the flip side, Jews have been blocked from progressive spaces because of their own support for Israel, or for merely identifying with a people for whom Zionism remains a central tenet. Jews are told their “white privilege” shields them from discrimination, when so many of us know the sting and dangers of anti-Semitism.
Conservatives and liberals, boomers and millennials, need to take a step back from a culture war in which no one can emerge a winner. We need to be firm in our beliefs but flexible in tolerating dissent. We need to resist social media’s tendency to inflame and diminish. In short, we need to be quicker to listen and slower to condemn.