Wokeness, free speech and the Jews

The decline in respect for open discourse caused by new orthodoxies on race, gender and politics is a threat to religious minorities, even if many Jews don’t see themselves at risk.

Protesting free speech in New York City. Credit: A Katz/Shutterstock.
Protesting free speech in New York City. Credit: A Katz/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Each new academic year provides fresh evidence of something that is recognized by most observers across the political spectrum as a disturbing reality of American higher education: the decline in respect by both students and faculty at American universities and colleges for open discourse. The 2021-22 year that’s coming to a close in the upcoming weeks has proved no exception. Sometimes, its controversial speakers are being disinvited due to fear of protests and accusations of insensitivity to the feelings of those who might disagree. Or it can concern the attempts to fire or deplatform those who say or tweet things deemed by the intellectual fashion of the day to be beyond the pale. Some of the most recent examples at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown universities are just more proof of how ubiquitous this trend has become.

But probably even more troubling than incidents involving speakers or individual students and faculty is the more pervasive phenomenon affecting students in general. Various opinion surveys from sources like the Pew Research Institute and the Knight Foundation have shown that more Americans are curbing their speech on controversial topics out of fear of being ostracized or even attacked in the current climate, where cancel culture prevails in so many forums. At the same time, growing numbers of people think that there’s nothing wrong with canceling those with opinions they consider to be offensive.

Public discourse has become a dialogue of the deaf in which we refuse to listen to each other. It’s also one in which those who disagree are not merely refuted but castigated and often shunned or silenced. Yet despite the growing chorus of those who lament this, there also seems to be a general refusal to comprehend just how illiberal the new intolerance for disagreement has become. At the same time, much of the organized Jewish community, as well as many who are thought of as opinion leaders, doesn’t understand that among those who should be most concerned by the collapse of classical liberal beliefs about free speech are the Jews.

This is reflected in the way social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter operate. In the name of enforcing community standards that are supposed to reflect shared values, these Big Tech giants have ruthlessly silenced opinion pieces and news stories that either contradict the progressive views of their owners and staff or serve to undermine liberal political goals and politicians. While damning their opponents as purveyors of “disinformation,” these same companies and their press allies are spewing out plenty of it themselves. Meanwhile, the possibility that free speech might be restored on Twitter with its purchase by entrepreneur and business magnate Elon Musk is being greeted with howls of outrage from many on the left who believe that it should only exist on the virtual public square if it conforms to their beliefs.

That’s even more true for those who are placed in the hothouse atmosphere of academia, where woke mobs of students and their enablers in the faculty and administration are always ready to silence anyone who dares to transgress against current orthodoxies on race, gender or liberal politics. Indeed, even citadels of institutional liberalism like The New York Times, which has itself transitioned from being the country’s paper of record to an openly progressive and partisan forum, have noticed that this isn’t good for society or democracy.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t understand that while we often use the terms liberal and progressive interchangeably to describe one side of the right-left political divide, they have come to mean very different things. Of course, that’s also true about the word “liberal” itself. The notion that the primary purpose of government should be to defend individual rights against the power of the state was the essence of 19th-century liberalism. But in the 20th century, as liberal political movements embraced the power of government in order to achieve policy aims, such libertarianism and suspicion of government power more often became the chief concern of those on the political right.

Politicians, no matter their ideology or affiliation, tend to be for whatever increases their own power and influence. Yet that turn away from classical liberal ideas on the left has turned into open rejection with the rise of ideologies like intersectionality and critical race theory (CRT). These notions, which embody the woke catechism, don’t merely depart from liberalism; they flatly contradict it since they categorize people by race as members of groups that are either victims or victimizers. Instead of promoting the free exchange of ideas, they are focused on anathematizing those who point out the flaws of this new faith as, in an act of epic gaslighting, racist and intolerant.

On college campuses, this has bred not merely anger at opposing views but a belief that to be exposed to ideas that challenge your pre-existing assumptions is a form of violence that “triggers” justified fear, forcing the supposed victims of these ideas to seek shelter in “safe spaces.” This is the opposite of the ideals of a free and open exchange of ideas that higher education was supposed to foster. But for progressives, traditional liberalism is an antiquated ideology since it is intended to promote debate, not uniformity with those on the outside of the new ideologies, who are damned for their retrograde views. That explains their increasing confidence in demanding that those who disagree be fired or shut up. Rather than identifying with the plight of those being canceled, this spirit of righteous indignation causes the woke to act as if their political foes deserve to be silenced rather than argued with.

So while respondents are telling pollsters that they are self-censoring to avoid getting on the wrong side of Twitter mobs or cancelation, many don’t understand that the consequences for democracy—a principle that progressives say is being threatened by the right—when debate is curtailed or squelched.

Let’s understand that there is a clear difference between cancel culture and the public pushback against woke teaching that has led to calls for a ban on the use of CRT in public schools or calls for curbs on the imposition of other leftist ideology among small children. Opposition to indoctrination is not a suppression of free speech but a defense of it.

Just as important are the consequences specifically for the Jewish community and Jewish students.

The most obvious is the way woke attacks on Jews as beneficiaries of “white privilege,” as well as on Israel and Zionism as expressions of oppression, have marginalized many Jews in left-wing strongholds, especially college campuses. A new survey of Jewish millennials from the American Jewish Committee showed that a significant percentage—though still a minority—of those in the 26 to 41-year-old age group felt that the anti-Israel atmosphere on campuses and elsewhere had impacted their personal friendship, commitment to the Jewish state or even their willingness to hide their Jewish identity. It’s easy to imagine that the same will be truer for the Gen Z generation now in college.

Intolerance and orthodoxy are always bad news for religious and ethnic minorities, especially those who don’t currently qualify for preferred minority status, like Jews and Asians, in the eyes of the woke.

Yet rather than understand that this represents a fundamental challenge to Jewish security, much of the organized community, including those tasked with defending it against anti-Semitism, like the Anti-Defamation League, are on the wrong side of this debate. While paying lip service to the nation that Jew-hatred exists on both the left and the right, they are also supporting ideas like CRT that underpin the surge of anti-Semitism.

As another academic year ends with free speech under threat everywhere but especially on campuses, it’s vital that the Jewish community stop pretending that it’s possible to fight anti-Semitism without being just as prepared to combat wokeness and cancel culture and the ideas that reinforce this illiberal plague of intolerance.

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

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