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Why do free speech warriors only care when conservatives are canceled?

Earlier today, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss resigned from the paper of record. Weiss, who has written extensively about anti-Semitism and Jewish issues, announced her resignation in a blistering letter condemning The Times for supposedly adopting an ideologically homogeneous left-wing political orthodoxy, in which “Twitter has become its ultimate editor” and “the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.” In so doing, her letter joined another much-discussed open letter at Harper’s Magazine, signed by Weiss, which also complained of “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Free speech and open debate are important values. So it’s distressing that those most vocally defending them have a big blindspot which was revealed in another corner of the internet last week, when Assistant Rabbi Andy Kahn of Temple Emanu-el, the oldest Reform synagogue in the city of New York and one of the largest synagogues in the world, wrote in a tweet that “Jews are not an indigenous people,” and that it is a form of cultural appropriation to apply the label “indigenous” to describe the relationship that the Jewish people have to the land of Israel and Palestine.

Rabbi Kahn’s commentary attracted much attention in the Jewish media world, including a rare formal rebuke in the pages of this paper from the senior rabbi of Rabbi Kahn’s own synagogue.

While many of the responses to Rabbi Kahn have remained at the level of good-faith intellectual debate and disagreement, there have been multiple calls for Temple Emanu-el to fire him for his views, and prominent voices in the Jewish media world are calling for Rabbi Kahn to suffer professional consequences from Temple Emanu-el for his views. In addition to calls on Twitter, I have been informed that Temple Emanu-el has received numerous phone calls demanding Rabbi Kahn’s firing.

In response, supporters organized an open letter defending Rabbi Kahn, insisting that while it is “perfectly acceptable to disagree with Rabbi Kahn’s views,” as many of the signatories do, he should not be subject to calls for firing from his rabbinical post for his attempt to have an earnest, good-faith debate about whether the “postcolonial concept of indigeneity was inappropriate and incorrect when applied to the Jewish connection to Israel.”


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Significantly, not one of the signatories on the Harper’s letter in defense of “Justice and Open Debate” has signed the letter in defense of Rabbi Kahn or spoken up against calls for him to be fired. Maybe they don’t know about the campaign. But I fear that the “cancel culture” critiqued by the letter when it comes from a left-wing “consensus” is just not as dangerous when it comes from Jews on the right demanding that a left-wing rabbi be fired for his own form of “Wrongthink.”

Certainly, within the American Jewish world, Jewish institutions exercise far more litmus tests around left-wing critics of Israel and Zionism than they do on the right.

Consider, for example, Hillel’s guidelines for hosting speakers. Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, states quite forthrightly that it will refuse to host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”

But in practice, Hillel has only enforced this guideline in one direction. Attempts to host speakers who question Israel’s Jewishness, and who call for one binational state with voting rights for all, have led to Hillel threatening to expel campus chapters from the national organization. But Hillel proudly partners with Israeli politicians such as Naftali Bennett, who are perfectly happy to sacrifice the “democratic” side of the “Jewish and democratic” equation; Bennett is on record stating that “Israel should never recognize a Palestinian state” and should annex the entire West Bank, which can only lead to apartheid.

For Hillel, it is apparently more acceptable to advocate one Jewish apartheid state than one non-Jewish democratic one.

Or consider the Anti-Defamation League, which responded to Jewish journalist Peter Beinart’s recent call for Israel to give up the dream of a two-state solution and become a binational state for all its citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, even at the cost of losing its Jewish voting majority. According to the ADL, calls for binationalism “are themselves anti-Semitic,” and so must be considered totally out of bounds for legitimate debate.

Yet the Anti-Defamation League, despite also claiming to support Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, has accepted invitations to attend anti-BDS summits founded and sponsored by Sheldon Adelson, overlooking the fact that Adelson has also been all too happy to sacrifice the “democratic” side of the equation; according to Adelson, “God didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state” and if Israel isn’t a democratic state — “So what?” Hillel, contravening its own guidelines that demand its partners support “Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” also partners with Sheldon Adelson against BDS, despite his open rejection of Israeli democracy.

These groups claim they draw lines around legitimate debate about Israel and Palestine, and that these lines are intended to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish democracy. But in truth, questioning Israel’s Jewishness is far more verboten in American Jewish spaces than questioning its democracy. That’s how we get American synagogues hosting speeches by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the latter of whom explicitly states that she would sacrifice Israeli democracy to preserve its Jewish voting majority.

Calling for one Jewish non-democratic state still gets a person invitations to address American synagogues. Can anyone imagine a Palestinian nationalist getting similar treatment?

To be clear, as someone who has questioned the need for Israel to prioritize Jewishness over democracy, I have no interest in drawing further lines around acceptable positions in the American Jewish community. I want to see American synagogues debate the calls from Israeli politicians to openly reject legal equality, so American Jews understand the true terms of this debate in Israel, and I also want to see them host speakers who advocate for one binational democratic state in response. Broadening the acceptable debate on Israel and Palestine would be good for all of us.

But if we’re going to talk about “cancel culture” in American Jewish culture, and the value of free speech and open debate, it’s important to talk about where those lines are being drawn right now.

So yes, let’s advocate for free speech and open debate. The state Weiss describes in her letter in which “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor” is a genuinely dangerous state of affairs; allowing social media platforms to become the arbiters of acceptable debate and who suffers professional consequences for their views is a road we do not want to go down.

But what Weiss writes about Twitter applies to Rabbi Andy Kahn, too. Groupthink and moral certitude can go both ways.

Correction: An earlier draft contained an editing error which falsely claimed that Rabbi Kahn had deleted his tweet. We truly regret the error.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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