Cancel culture comes to the Conference of Presidents

The left’s attempt to expel the ZOA because its leader took issue with the Black Lives Matter movement is more evidence of the spread of an out-of-control outrage mob.

A Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality in St. Paul, Minn., in 2015. Credit: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons.
A Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality in St. Paul, Minn., in 2015. Credit: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Americans are united in their outrage about the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was wrongfully killed by a Minneapolis policeman. But the reaction to the death of Floyd has transcended the grief and anger felt about that incident. It has given life to a vast protest movement determined to oppose police brutality and racism. A commendable desire to oppose hate has quickly morphed into something beyond advocacy for a cause that all decent people support.

Along with the opposition to police misconduct and racism has come the push to attack, shame and silence anyone who dissents not just from the main message of anti-racism, but of slogans, groups and gestures associated with it. To violate these new rules of social discourse or to support policies opposed by the social-media outrage can cause someone to be “canceled,” which means being the object of a Twitter “pile on” in which violators of the new rules of discourse are treated as villains to be shunned.

Rather than being limited to Twitter, a Jewish leader’s opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement is fueling an effort to toss him and his organization out of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The outcome of this dispute between Mort Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, and his liberal critics will speak volumes about whether open discourse or canceling will be the way the Jewish world will conduct debates in the future.

One prominent example of canceling was Drew Brees, the star quarterback of the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints, who was widely excoriated for opposing players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. The fact that he had voiced his opposition to racism in the same statement in which he said that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America”—a reference to former player Colin Kaepernick’s controversial practice of kneeling during the anthem—was not enough to prevent him from being bullied by a tidal wave of opprobrium on Twitter and in the media. Kaepernick was subsequently shunned by every NFL team, though never backed down from his stand. And under pressure from popular opinion, as well as his teammates and the NFL, Brees was forced to repeatedly apologize in a humiliating ritual that bore a troubling resemblance to a hostage video or the “struggle sessions” that victims of China’s Maoist Culture Revolution suffered in the 1960s.

The dynamic here is that opinions that were widely held and considered reasonable can suddenly be viewed as evidence of racism or indecency in the blink of an eye. Kaepernick’s kneeling thus became not merely acceptable, but those who now do not join in the gesture—a tactic now adopted by police and politicians as a way of trying to defuse the anger of demonstrators or to pose as one of their sympathizers—are damned not merely for insensitivity but as racists.

A desire to identify with African-Americans dealing with racism motivated many of the statements that have been heard from prominent individuals and organizations in the last two weeks in support of the idea of Black Lives Matter. But it was also painfully obvious that much of what is being said is mere virtue signaling designed to keep the speaker out of the crosshairs of Twitter mobs.

One person who doesn’t appear to be afraid of being canceled is Mort Klein, the outspoken and combative president of the ZOA.

Unlike the heads of most other Jewish organizations, Klein is not prepared to bend the knee, literally or figuratively, to the Black Lives Matter movement and has said so on social media.

For that, liberal critics—some of whom are now seeking to eject ZOA from the influential Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—have denounced him as a “racist.”

Klein has denounced BLM on Twitter as a “a Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters.”

That’s unacceptable to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, who told JTA that Klein must be booted out of the Conference because his presence there means that other members are “now implicated by his views, his Islamophobia, his racism, full stop.”

The context for the dustup between the ZOA and the URJ is a bitter battle that both organizations have waged over the election of the next chairman of the Conference. 

ZOA fought the selection of former HIAS board chair Dianne Lob because Klein and like-minded Conference members think her group is not committed to Israel advocacy, the main purpose of the organization. He also said that HIAS is connected to anti-Trump radicals and supported the mass immigration of Muslims he believed were likely to be anti-Semitic. 

While Lob won the vote, the dispute has continued. HIAS and its liberal allies are seeking to oust the ZOA for its vocal stand. ZOA responded by seeking to oust HIAS for no longer serving Jewish interests. At this point, both sides should pipe down and put aside their differences. But it’s obvious that the divide between them has become too wide and too bitter. 

Jacobs, who disagrees with Klein on a host of issues involving Israel and American political causes, thinks the ZOA leader’s attacks on BLM will be his undoing. In the current atmosphere, Jacobs is hoping Klein’s unwillingness to genuflect to the BLM movement is the equivalent of touching the third rail of American culture. 

Klein answers by saying that he not only has condemned the killing of George Floyd, but praises “the efforts of everyone who is working to end anti-black racism.” Still, he adds that he is “concerned that the group Black Lives Matter will use its new visibility and legitimacy to more effectively continue attacking and demonizing Jews and Israel.” 

Black Lives Matter may be sacrosanct today, but much of the Jewish world was opposed to a 2016 platform created by its organizers that called Israel a “genocidal apartheid state” and identified itself with the anti-Semitic BDS movement. The defenders of BLM say it is wrong to confuse a group that operated under its banner with a phrase that most Americans associate with a desire to end racism and nothing else. 

The problem is that BLM is both an anodyne plea for social justice, as well as a movement behind a raft of controversial ideas, like defunding the police and intersectionality that targets Israel. 

Jacobs points out that there was broad support among Jews for BLM. “We in the Jewish community are out there fighting with our allies for a more equitable society, and we see in these tweets the opposite of what our community holds. Black Lives Matter is at the center of one of the most critical fights for justice in our country.” 

Klein answers, “It’s my duty” to “expose and criticize BLM’s harmful Israel-bashing positions. Being on the right side of one racial issue doesn’t give one license to be on the wrong side of anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred.” 

It’s not clear if Jacobs will succeed in getting the votes of 70 percent of the members of the Conference to endorse suspending ZOA. Though the umbrella group appears headed for a schism, other groups may hope to hold it together, rather than see it split into competing factions of the left and the right, as would be the case if ZOA were expelled. 

The purpose of Jacobs’s effort is about more than who gets to participate in Conference meetings. He wants to mobilize Jewish opinion to essentially put Klein in herem—a biblical Hebrew term that anticipated modern-day “canceling”— so as to place him and his group beyond the pale as far as mainstream Jewish discourse and politics are concerned. 

Regardless of your opinion of Klein, ZOA or BLM, a successful effort to cancel a major Jewish group and its leader because of their concerns about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not in the interests of the Jewish community. 

It’s bad enough that social-media mobs can often succeed in marginalizing or silencing figures who say or do something that is impolitic or even deeply wrong. But there is no justice to be found in mob actions or efforts at shaming or shunning those who say unpopular things. 

Though doing so may invite opprobrium and accusations of insensitivity, it ought to be possible to say that black lives matter while also taking issue with kneeling during the anthem or hateful ideas that deserve to be denounced. Short of actually advocating racism or anti-Semitism, members of the Jewish community on both the left and right should feel free to speak up on divisive issues without fearing being shunned and silenced. The last thing we need is for the Jewish communal world to become the moral equivalent of a social-media cancel mob. 

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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