Issues surrounding race and gender identity are not merely touchstones of political debate as Americans have descended into a political tribal culture war. In a society in which there is precious little space in the center, most people have found themselves on one side or the other of the divide. With most people reading, listening and watching two completely different sets of media outlets and living in social-media silos in which they have isolated themselves from any views that don’t confirm their pre-existing opinions and biases, open debate about anything is difficult.
That is even more the case for the non-Orthodox Jewish world, where cultural trends, reinforced not just by New York Times editorial policy but by the boundaries for acceptable comment set by pop-culture venues like the late-night comedy shows and Hollywood productions, are far more inflexible than the supposedly iron grip that we were told that supporters of Israel had on Jewish discourse. Cancel culture is not a figment of the conservative imagination. To the contrary, its dominance has spread from college campuses — where conservatives are routinely ostracized and deplatformed by woke mobs and intimidated school administrators — to the public square.
That’s why those who question the blind support that mainstream Jewish groups, like the JCPA and the Anti-Defamation League, have given the Black Lives Matter movement or who mention the antisemitism it enables are often afraid to do so anywhere outside of conservative bubbles. The same is just as true for those who push back at the new orthodoxy about transgender issues in which even world-famous celebrities like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling can be canceled if they discuss basic truths about biology and gender. That applies even more to less well-known Jewish authors like Abigail Shrier, who points out the damage to children by this trend or the injustice done to female athletes by allowing their competitions to be dominated by biological males.
It is in that context that a joint letter signed by a broad cross-section of North American rabbis about the repressive nature of such public discussions should be read.
The statement, which was coordinated by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, attempts to rally support for the proposition that it should still be possible to publicly challenge some of the contemporary shibboleths on these issues. Most importantly, it makes it clear that while, like other mainstream establishments, the liberal Jewish world is eager to embrace and celebrate diversity when it comes to welcoming people of color or those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community into Jewish institutions and fora, it is openly hostile to the diversity of viewpoints on these and other issues.
As the letter notes, fully half of the American public already says it is self-censoring itself when it comes to divisive issues rather than openly discussing them. That is also true of much of the Jewish community, especially where it concerns cultural issues where, as the rabbis’ letter states, “Some in our organizations and congregations feel stifled by the shrinking space of ‘permissible’ discourse and retreat into silence.”
It is not just that, as the rabbis remind us, “the culture of disputation and debate in the Jewish world — argument for the sake of heaven — has been a hallmark of Jewish life, and key to creative Jewish survival.” What is under attack in the American public square and in Jewish forums is not just specific points of view deemed politically incorrect. Rather, it’s the very concept of liberal values, in its true and original meaning and not just a political label.
Those who buy into the toxic myths of critical race theory and intersectionality, which put race at the center of every discussion, are at odds not so much with political conservatives but with liberalism, if by that we still mean a willingness to judge each individual by his or her own merits rather than on the basis of their skin color or ethnic or racial background. Simply put, the impulse to shout down and cancel those who dissent on these issues is fundamentally illiberal.
But, as the initial response to the rabbis’ letter indicates, it will be an uphill battle weaning mainstream Jewish discourse from the rules of cancel culture. As one left-wing writer told The Forward, any attempt to promote free speech on these issues is viewed by some support for “racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, transphobia and anti-intermarriage sentiment.”
In other words, those who wish to facilitate debate about such issues need to be prepared to be labeled as bigots.
Nevertheless, it is vital that this discussion proceed. The willingness of so many rabbis to do so among the increasingly left-oriented Conservative and Reform movements is highly encouraging. No matter where you stand on any of these issues, shutting down such discussions with name-calling isn’t making us better, smarter or more inclusive.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @Jonathans_tobin.