I have never before, in the pages of this magazine, directly addressed the resurgence of blatant anti-Semitism both here in the US and abroad. I’m not certain why. Perhaps because the subject is simply too painful. Perhaps because the search for solutions is so seemingly intractable. Perhaps because the now daily reminders that the scourge of vicious hatred has not departed from our midst dulls our sensitivity and mutes our outrage.
But I now feel compelled to speak, and, in so doing, to address not just the purveyors of hate—that would be easier, albeit futile—but those that tolerate anti-Semites; that disclaim their message but defend their right to advance it; that, in the process, enable them to spew hatred of Jews and the Jewish people—often under the blanket protection of “free speech.”
Pittsburgh and Poway are but examples—perhaps the most frightening and brutal examples—of a resurgent anti-Semitism that is engulfing our country. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, nearly nine out of ten American Jews (88 percent) say anti-Semitism is a problem in the US today—almost 40 percent call it a very serious problem. Nearly a third of the Jews polled have avoided publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might identify them as Jews; a quarter have avoided places or events out of concern for their safety; a third reported that Jewish institutions with which they are affiliated have been targeted by anti-Semitic attacks, graffiti or threats.
Not a day goes by without the report of anti-Semitic incidents in communities throughout America; swastikas painted on, and in, school buildings and playgrounds; at Duke University, where a swastika was painted over a mural honoring the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings; at UCLA, where the administration gave tacit approval to the National Conference of Students for Justice in Palestine, whose ranks include leaders who have tweeted such statements as “let’s stuff some Jews in the oven,” and “every time I read about Hitler, I fall in love all over again”; in multiple Brooklyn neighborhoods, where acts of anti-Semitic violence against Orthodox Jews have become commonplace—shul windows smashed and pedestrians violently assaulted. My purpose here is not to chronicle these heinous acts. Rather, I want to explore how civil society has, by its actions or its failure to act, enabled such conduct to slowly work its way beyond the fringes of our society, both left and right, and infiltrate the mainstream of our social fabric.
Let me illustrate: Earlier this year, videos surfaced on social media showing high school students in Garden Grove, California, giving the straight-arm Nazi salute while singing a German military song. One could, I suppose, write off such conduct as the prankish, sophomoric actions of uneducated youth. But what I found particularly distressing was the reaction of the mainstream press as the videos went viral. This conduct, regardless of intention or motivation, was pure, unadulterated anti-Semitism; the type of conduct that should have been immediately and universally condemned. But when USA Today reported on the incident, the response was equivocal: “[t]aking disciplinary action sends a direct message about whether hate will be tolerated, but at the same time raises questions of freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech—the tolerance of intolerance.
There is nothing new or unique about anti-Semitism. What is shocking, however, is the degree to which the mainstream of civil society—not the radical fringes of right and left, but our core institutions and opinion makers—academics, public intellectuals and journalists—have blithely tolerated the most blatant acts of intolerance.
Several weeks ago, Columbia University invited the prime minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad, to address its Global Leadership Forum. Dr. Mohamad is a notorious, self-proclaimed anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.
Among his vile pronouncements:
“I am glad to be labeled anti-Semitic.”
“Today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”
“You cannot even mention that in the Holocaust it was not six million [Jews who died].”
“The Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively.”
But despite this history—known to all—one of the world’s most prestigious universities extended an invitation to an outspoken, vile anti-Semite to address its students.
After news of this invitation became public, I wrote the following to Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger:
I am an alumnus of Columbia College, Class of 1971. I have been an active Columbia alum, having served for several years on the Columbia College Board of Visitors. I currently serve as a member of the Board of Directors of the Columbia-Barnard Hillel.
As so many Columbia alumni, I was shocked at Columbia’s decision to permit Prime Minister Mohamad of Malaysia to speak at the University. There is no dispute whatsoever that the Prime Minister is a rabid anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Giving him a forum at Columbia is simply inexplicable. Speaking at any University . . . particularly Columbia . . . is a privilege, not a right. I had always felt that Columbia in general, and you in particular, sought by its conduct and its decisions to live the values that it seeks to inculcate in its students.
I call upon you, even at this late date, to place these values that we all cherish so dearly above all else, and to cancel this misguided appearance.
President Bollinger’s office responded, in relevant part, as follows:
You are correct that I find the anti-Semitic statements of Prime Minister Mahathir to be abhorrent, contrary to what we stand for, and deserving of condemnation. Nevertheless, it is in these instances that we are most strongly resolved to insist that our campus remain an open forum and to protect the freedoms essential to our University community.
This is the tolerance of intolerance. “Protect the freedoms essential to our University community.” But what of the freedom to be sheltered from vilification based on one’s religious identity? Must an “open forum” include the right to slander and abuse?
In his speech, the Malaysian prime minister defended his absolute right to preach hatred: “When you say ‘you cannot be anti-Semitic,’ there is no free speech. I am exercising my right to free speech. Why is it I can’t say something against the Jews? . . .”
So there we have it. A rabid anti-Semite was granted license to spew his venomous remarks at the invitation of one of America’s most prestigious institutions. And his right to do so defended—tolerated—by one of America’s foremost intellectuals. Not by a street thug ripping off an Orthodox woman’s wig while she walked with her children on a Brooklyn street; not by a group of ignorant teenagers giving a Nazi salute around a swastika made of beer cups; not by a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us.” No, this defense of permissible hate speech was from the president of Columbia University, the same institution that hosted the Jew-hating president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007. At least then, President Bollinger had the moral courage to take the stage in advance of Ahmadinejad’s address, introducing him by noting that the Iranian president exhibited “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” and adding that by denying the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” But not this time. Now, with anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head across our nation and beyond, the president of Columbia University deliberately chose to tolerate the intolerant.
Our mainstream media has likewise contributed to the tolerance of anti-Semitism. How vividly do we all recall the April 2019 publication by the international edition of the New York Times of a despicable cartoon depicting a blind, kippa-clad President Trump being led on a leash by a dachshund with the visage of Prime Minister Netanyahu, a Star of David prominently displayed around its neck. The cartoon’s message was crystal clear: Israelis—Jews—are so in control of world affairs that they could lead American presidents wherever they wish and have them blindly and obediently follow.
This latest in a cascading series of offenses by the New York Times prompted op-ed columnist Bret Stephens to write:
Imagine, for instance, if the dog on a leash in the image hadn’t been the Israeli prime minister but instead a prominent woman such as Nancy Pelosi, a person of color such as John Lewis, or a Muslim such as Ilhan Omar. Would that have gone unnoticed by either the wire service that provides the Times with images or the editor who, even if he were working in haste, selected it? The question answers itself. And it raises a follow-on: How have even the most blatant expressions of anti-Semitism become almost undetectable to editors who think it’s part of their job to stand up to bigotry?
Our American democratic tradition, rooted in First Amendment values, has seemingly placed the right to speak freely above all other societal norms. But one must question whether such a hierarchy of values in fact fosters the democratic and pluralistic ideals that we aspire to or whether it simply legitimizes conduct that carries within it the seeds of the ultimate demise of democracy itself.
In a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times, entitled “Free Speech is Killing Us,” Andrew Marantz decried the effects of ubiquitous, unregulated, hate-filled pronouncements on social media, tolerated by our infatuation with free-speech protections:
Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we—the government, private companies, or individual citizens—be doing about it?
Nothing. Or at least that’s the answer one often hears from liberals and conservatives alike. Some speech might be bad, this line of thinking goes, but censorship is always worse. The First Amendment is first for a reason. . . .
Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.
Indeed, our right to say whatever we want, wherever we chose to, is not limitless. First Amendment protections have never applied to the private sector—only to government action. And even our First Amendment jurisprudence is bounded. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously observed, no one is free to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Libel and slander are actionable. Incitement of violence and child pornography are all forms of speech, and yet we prohibit them without fear that the very foundations of our freedom will come crashing down.
Jewish law likewise places limits on “free speech.” There is a Torah prohibition against gossip: “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people” (Vayikra 19:16). Lashon hara is a subset of this broader prohibition. As the Rambam explains: “There is a far greater sin that falls under this prohibition [of gossip]. It is ‘the evil tongue,’ which refers to whoever speaks despairingly of his fellow, even though he speaks the truth” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 7:2). Whoever speaks with an evil tongue, the Talmud teaches us, it is as if he denied God (Arachin 15b). In the last century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, devoted much of his enormous Torah scholarship to the laws of speech, and the avoidance of lashon hara.
And for many Western democracies outside of the United States, hate speech is routinely banned as inimical to social order. Recently, for example, a German neo-Nazi—the former leader of the far-right National Democratic Party—was convicted of Holocaust denial by a German court. He appealed his conviction, arguing that a ban on Holocaust denial was a violation of his human rights. The European Union Court of Justice upheld his conviction, holding that denial of the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews was “not a basic human right.” The court found that promotion of Holocaust denial “could not attract the protection for freedom of speech” incorporated in the European Convention on Human Rights, as such statements ran “counter to the values of the Convention itself.”
Columbia University’s President Bollinger is surely not an anti-Semite, and Columbia University is not an anti-Semitic institution. Yet in their zeal to pray at the temple of free speech and academic freedom, they have become enablers. Their position is cowardly and morally repugnant. They have tolerated intolerance, and in the process sacrificed the very freedoms that we cherish and that they seemingly seek to foster.
In a seminal essay entitled “Repressive Tolerance,” noted philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote as follows:
In the past and different circumstances, the speeches of the Fascist and Nazi leaders were the immediate prologue to the massacre . . . But the spreading of the word could have been stopped before it was too late: if democratic tolerance had been withdrawn when the future leaders started their campaign, mankind would have had a chance of avoiding Auschwitz and a World War . . . When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted.
This was, I believe, the true intent of our Founding Fathers—to balance the liberties we cherish, including the right to speak our minds and freely express our views, against the rights of every citizen to live in safety, free from persecution and the gnawing insecurity of organized hatred and vilification.
In August 1790, President George Washington wrote a now-iconic letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. The letter is remarkably short—only 340 words—but its impact on American history has been profound. In it, President Washington reassured those who had fled religious tyranny that their lives in the nascent American nation would be forever altered; that religious “toleration” would give way to religious liberty; and that the power of the state would never be used to interfere with matters of belief or religious practice.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
We pine for a society that gives to bigotry no sanction. We long for a society that gives to persecution no assistance. Those who seek to fulfill this great vision can no longer tolerate the intolerance that surrounds us.
Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.