The late Village Voice journalist and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff loved telling the story about how three rabbis, gathered in a Massachusetts motel in 1982, officially excommunicated him from the Jewish people for the crime of signing a New York Times advertisement protesting Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. That their clerical authority to extinguish Hentoff’s Judaism was recognized by no one but themselves is a source of both comedy and anger. In matters political, even the smallest of factions can pretend that their extremism matters, but at the heart of that absurdity is the dark human desire to censor and to silence anyone deviating from the party line.
And so joining the three rabbis in this tragic comedy are the 900+ signers of what’s now called the “Jewish Harper’s Letter,” published by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, alleging that an undefined “social justice ideology” holds that there is “only one way to look at the problems we face, and those who disagree must be silenced.” They assert that this “suppression of dissent violates the core Jewish value of open discourse” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 5/5/21). It’s called the “Jewish Harper’s Letter” because it echoes and extends a letter signed by journalists and academics about censoriousness, published in Harper’s (7/7/20; FAIR.org, 8/1/20).
So far the letter has received some mainstream attention (Newsweek, 5/5/21), given the prominence of some of the rabbis, academics and journalists who signed it, like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens and his former colleague Bari Weiss. The letter never says how their views have been silenced, or names a group, individual or specific school of thought that is implementing such a chilling effect. Nor do the signers, many of whom are prominent journalists associated with the Jewish right, disclose their own unease with free discourse, their own desire to suppress speech and their own extremism.
For example, Weiss (who now maintains her own newsletter at Substack) famously tried to silence critics of Israel at Columbia University (Intercept, 3/8/18). Stephens alerted an academic’s boss because he called the columnist a “bedbug” on Twitter (NBC, 8/27/19). Liel Leibowitz, a signer and Tablet writer, said Jews shouldn’t go to college because of the ideas they might be exposed to (Tablet, 10/28/18)—or, as he put it, because college is a place where “tenured professors train like-minded fanatics, and students are punished or rewarded for their willingness to pledge allegiance to their loony dogma.”
The lack of specificity in the letter isn’t an accident. Defining an ideological enemy so vaguely will allow these individuals, many of whom are on the right of the political spectrum, to employ the accusation of overly censorious “social justice” talk when they deem it necessary.
Given that so much of the letter aims at racial discord—the letter says that on “racial justice,” Jewish organizations do not “encourage discussions that include differing perspectives,” because “in some cases, Jewish leaders have even denounced Jews for expressing unpopular opinions”—one can assume this is responding to Jewish Americans who have in the last several years aligned with Black Lives Matter, Abolish ICE and Antifa, which have responded to both the rise of far-right extremist groups and the state violence of border enforcement and overly militarized policing. The letter evokes the Republican hype about “cancel culture,” the idea that the price of offending “social justice” activists means losing your job or media platform.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Joshua Shanes, an associate professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston. “The idea that [the left] is betraying liberalism is an old trope to stop progress, going back to the ’30s, and then to ‘neocons’ in the ’70s and ’80s.”
The fact is that while the Jewish right claims they are being silenced or vilified in the media by the left, the Jewish right and its allies have levied harsh criticism toward liberal Jews and have in some cases attempted to deplatform them. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America blasted the Jewish immigration group HIAS for opposing the Trump administration (Jerusalem Post, 8/24/20), and the ZOA has also attempted to punish campus Jewish groups for voicing criticism of Israel (American Prospect, 1/4/07). DePaul University rejected tenure to anti-Israel scholar Norman Finkelstein, a result of his famous feud with pro-Israel legal scholar and Trump advocate Alan Dershowitz (Inside Higher Ed, 6/11/07). When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an executive order against the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, he didn’t do so in a vacuum, but in “a speech at the Harvard Club in Manhattan to an audience including local Jewish leaders and lawmakers” (New York Times, 6/5/16).
The former US ambassador to Israel likened liberal Jews—that is, the bulk of US Jews—to Nazi collaborators (New York, 12/16/16). Chicago-based Palestine Legal published a report on the heavily coordinated activity to silence critics of Israel across the country—a report that, unlike the JILV letter, cited specific examples, like how Florida politicians attacked the president of the Florida State student senate because of “social media posts he had made against the Israeli occupation.”
The JILV “is a project of an opaque foundation connected to Republican megadonor Adam Beren,” the Forward (5/6/21) reported. Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Temple University, told FAIR, “It is concerning when an initiative claiming to ‘stand up for democratic liberal values’ is far from transparent about its funding source.” She added: “It seems that a basic requirement of supporting free and open debate would be to eschew cloaked or unaccountable modes of influence.”
Leo Ferguson, director of strategic projects at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told FAIR:
The letter demonstrates a cynical, willful misunderstanding of the liberal political tradition, the meaning of free speech and dissent, and the mechanisms at work in a free marketplace of ideas. Let’s be clear—the almost exclusively white signatories to this letter aren’t motivated by an ironclad commitment to free political expression. On the contrary, many of these folks have led the charge to pass anti-BDS bills like the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which is about as illiberal and censorious as you can get in a country with a First Amendment. At the end of the day, the not-so-sub-text of this letter is that conservative white Jews really don’t like being called racist. But just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
It’s easy to laugh off academic and journalistic elites who believe that they’re being censored, but the true tragedy of the letter is that the signers hold up robust Jewish debate as their guiding tradition, when what they really want is for their ideas to go unchallenged in the marketplace of ideas. These signers have every right, both in the name of free discourse and the US constitution, to say whatever they want, no matter how controversial. But that also means Jewish leftists and “social justice” activists have a right to respond in kind. The anti-woke, anti–social justice right, to quote Hentoff again, wants “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Weiss said in her resignation letter that her conservatism was under attack while at the Times because colleagues ridiculed her, and that she faced viciousness on Twitter (New York Times, 7/14/20). But the gritty world of New York City journalism is home to lots of biting editors, and sources who love to complain to reporters about their coverage.
As for online harassment, that is unfortunately the world that any journalist has to deal with in the social media age. Julie Ioffe received considerable antisemitic harassment after she wrote a critical profile of Melania Trump (GQ, 4/27/16), attacks that Trump, whose husband would later become president, blamed on Ioffe (Washington Post, 5/17/16). I was put on an alt-right hit list (Forward, 10/19/16), and was harassed by Nazis on Twitter when I defended Antifa (Ha’aretz, 6/7/20). Welcome to the club, Bari. If you don’t like it here, perhaps the writing profession isn’t for you.
This failed attempt to paint “social justice” as some sort of anti-free speech mob is funny only until you put it into the context of a conservative movement that is taking legal moves to ban or threaten certain ideas (such as proposed laws against boycotts against Israel), and to protect violence against protestors. I have previously written for FAIR.org (10/23/20, 2/16/21) that right-wing anger about “cancel culture” and “wokeness” are often merely projections of the right’s desire to censor the left. The “Jewish Harper’s Letter” is simply another chapter in this disinformation tactic by the right.