Open Zion

12.09.13

Dear Jews: Stop Trying to Make People Shut Up

Dear fellow Jews—I implore you: Please, please stop trying to make people shut up.

I get it. That person over there—that Jew/Christian/Muslim/Palestinian/Israeli/American/human—has said something that infuriates you. And you’re old enough/have read enough books/have listened to enough relatives at the Seder table that angry words spoken about the Jewish community writ large and Israel in particular bring up frightening memories.

You’re probably among the 78 percent of American Jews who feel that “remembering the Holocaust” is an essential element of Jewish identity—but “remembering” is kind of a vague notion. Whatever it might mean to any given individual, you know that you’re nervous, whether genetically, by training, or by hard experience, and you want to make sure that “never again” means never again. You take one look at tiny Israel, and you worry—you don’t know what to do, but you do know you’re worried. You think that Jews in general and Israel in particular would not just be better off, but genuinely safer if no one ever heard the nasty things that the aforementioned Jew/Christian/Muslim/Palestinian/Israeli/American/human wants to say. So you want to do your best to make sure that no one ever does.

But oy this is wrong on so many levels (and not just because I’ve occasionally been the person you want to shut up). Where do I begin?

First of all, when the people you don’t want to hear are fellow Jews, you’re ignoring a rich, millennia-long tradition of argument. We are a people that is famous for its disagreements— “two Jews, three opinions,” right? We disagree so much, and about such fundamental issues, that we recorded some of the most important disagreements in our holy texts—the Talmud, after all, is nothing if not a record of how fervently Jews disagree. For Pete’s sake, our greatest figures argued with God Himself—first Abraham, then Moses. And God not only let them argue, He let Himself be persuaded.

Second of all, in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and a variety of other places that Jews call home, the right to hold and express wildly divergent opinions is baked right into the political system. In a functioning democracy, government is legally prevented from censoring speech, and all political discourse is based on the principal that “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Indeed, the one time that both these principals were turned completely on their heads and used against a large number of American Jews was during the McCarthy years. Remember the McCarthy years? Joe McCarthy really wanted to shut people up.

But beyond that, we consider ourselves (and are widely considered by others) to be a well-educated lot. All the jokes about becoming a doctor or a lawyer or both are really about the value we place on the educational process—not just knowledge, but education. And nothing squelches education, or the desire for education, like stifling discourse. We cannot learn if all we ever hear is that which we already know, or already believe to be true. Put another way: If our intellectual exercises never make us uncomfortable, then we haven’t really learned very much.

But whatever, blah blah, heritage of discourse, pluralism, People of the Book—stifling dissent also just doesn’t work anymore. Seriously, even if you’re willing to ignore all of the foregoing, the next time you want to force an organization or individual to prevent the airing of opinions you deem dangerous, consider the hullabaloo that follows every such attempt. Consider the many ways that people now have of getting word out: Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, blogs—word of mouth now has a series of megaphones, each louder than the last, and all of the megaphones are on all the time. Twenty-four-seven. If what you’re doing looks like stifling dissent, people will set those megaphones to 11, and your efforts will fail. Which is to say: Even if you successfully pressure an organization to dis-invite the speaker or cancel the film or move the event, everybody who cares is going to hear about it anyway—and if the organization doesn’t give in to your tactics, the person/idea you so dislike will have gotten reams and reams of free publicity. And you, my friends, will look silly and desperate, and it will be a not-inconsiderable shanda fur die goyim, not to mention fur die yidden.

A shanda fur die yidden because, aside from anything else, there are plenty of Jews who want nothing to do with such nonsense, and you’re not only embarrassing them (us), you’re scaring a fair number of folks away. Ask around—ask at shul, ask your family, ask any Jewish college kids you know. Ask how they feel when the topic of Israel comes up—do they want to engage in the conversation, or would they really rather just stay quiet? Ask if they’ve ever had a phenomenally awkward, bordering on painful exchange, in which voicing a concern about Israel or the Jewish people has led to being hectored, lectured, hounded into silence, or possibly hounded out of their community. Go ahead: Ask.

Trying to force the entire world, Jews and Gentiles alike, to hew to an ever-narrowing notion of what one is allowed say about Israel is, in short, not good for the Jews. It is bad for us. It denies our heritage, dilutes our democratic spirit, shrinks our capacity for intellectual growth, frightens people away—and looks really, really bad. You don’t have to agree with everybody. Lord knows I don’t. But they get to talk anyway.

So please. Just stop.