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Jews stand for debate- which means backing the NYT

Jews believe in argument. Even Jews who have never looked at a page of Talmud know that debate is part of our DNA.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Our greatest thinkers were our best arguers. Our most precious inheritance is that tradition of argument. This isn’t something to be hoarded. On the contrary, it is something that needs to be insisted on and shared. Which is why it is so astonishing and disheartening to see that tradition be abandoned in favor of a false god of ideological conformity.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas. Cotton joined a debate about the proper response to the unrest that has seized the country alongside peaceful protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by members of the Minneapolis Police Department.

President Trump has floated the idea of invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, which would authorize calling in the U.S. military. Nearly six in 10 Americans support this highly controversial measure. This columnist does not. Neither does the current Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. But Senator Cotton does.

The response, even accounting for a moment that is on edge, has been astonishing. Many of the paper’s staff is in open revolt. The tactics of objection are not to refute the argument, but rather to shut down conversation altogether by claiming that publishing an opinion with which they do not agree puts Times staff in actual danger. It is part of a larger architecture of policing speech, where the ability of people to use their voice is dictated by the color of their skin or the measure of their privilege. And this crackdown on what is sayable is undertaken by the very same crowd that righteously invokes the Fifth Amendment when they are out in the streets.

In response, the opinion editor of the Times, James Bennett, has sensibly pointed out that diversity must apply to ideas, not just skin pigmentation. The opinion section of any publication, including this one, at its best is a contemporary page of Talmud, animated by profound disagreement. That’s the point.

And Jewish tradition tells us that disagreement is not suspended during difficult times. It needs to be amplified. Historically Jews have loved argument not because it’s fun to yell. The ancient rabbinic phrase alu v’alu divrei elokim chayim — “these and these are the words of the living God” — points to the insight that there is no monopoly on truth anywhere but in Heaven. Here on earth, it is the things we disagree with that make us think and make us smarter. Every lawyer knows that the real measure of a case is found on cross-examination.

I suspect that the real reason for the meltdown at the Times is not just a selective approach to disagreement. It is a refusal to grapple with the complexity of the situation. And the truth is that this situation is nothing but complex.

The murder of a black man in Minnesota is an utter tragedy. So too is the murder of another black man in St. Louis by looters, and the critical injury of a police officer who was shot, execution-style, in the back of the head.

Alongside the moral statement of protests is the reality of minority-owned businesses that have been wrecked and ruined during post-protest rioting. The actual number of unarmed black men killed by the police, each one a tragedy, is low. That does not mean the outrage is misplaced. It does mean that the relation between facts and feelings is fraught.

Even as synagogues have been defaced and kosher restaurants and shops vandalized, so many Jews have stepped into this fight, and the argument has been made that Jewish tradition impels and sanctifies that participation.

But those same values dictate that we keep an open mind and fight for the value of free conversation. To opt-out of that challenge is to do the equivalent of “send in the troops” on the possibility to disagree productively.

A world where health officials prohibit gathering during the pandemic except for causes they agree with, and a newspaper revolts over an opinion piece that its conforming staff cannot countenance, and a president makes arguments with tear gas is one that will be dreary and brutal at best and unfree at worst. Jews know this.

Go to any Beit Midrash, or house of study, and you will hear a cacophony of yelling and argument, positions taken and lost and theses handled and refuted. I wish everything could be like that. My fear is that the drumbeat of dogmatic braying at the Times augurs the end of argument. We all should argue against that, to the end.

Editor’s Note: Since this article has been published, under immense internal and external pressure, a New York Times spokeswoman said in a statement that “a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short-term and long-term changes, to include expanding our fact-checking operation and reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.


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