Criticize or Cancel? Engage or Estrange? Some Questions About Confronting Antisemitism

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One of the more disturbing trends we are experiencing today is the rise of antisemitic attacks, qualitatively and quantitatively, online with words and offline with physical violence.  As we continue to watch and monitor closely, there are many who are confident they know the answer, they understand the correct approach, the appropriate response to each incident. I’m less sure. As each day passes and each new disturbing incident, statement, tweet, or God forbid violent act occurs, the following questions occur to me regarding how to respond, and I share them with you for your careful consideration:

If everything is antisemitism, isn’t nothing antisemitism?  We need to be discerning and judicious in our definition of, and what we call out as, antisemitism.  Not everything that rubs us the wrong way, offends us, or is insensitive or unkind, is necessarily antisemitic.  When we label something antisemitic that isn’t, we lose credibility.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l explained it as follows:


First let me define antisemitism. Not liking Jews is not antisemitism. We all have people we don’t like. That’s OK; that’s human; it isn’t dangerous. Second, criticizing Israel is not antisemitism…Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else. It takes different forms in different ages. In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, the state of Israel. It takes different forms but it remains the same thing: the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.


If nothing is antisemitism, can we survive? Throughout our history, persecution, oppression, expulsion, and attempts at extermination began with the normalization of Jewish stereotypes, slurs, tropes, and promoting distortions and lies about Jewish power and influence.  If we dismiss everything elected officials, athletes, celebrities and public personalities say and post about Jews as benign, comedy, hyperbole or “not what it sounds like/not how they meant it,” we are burying our heads in the sand, shirking our responsibility, and ultimately are accomplices to the spread of this pernicious and dangerous hate.  While we need to be judicious in not labeling everything offensive as antisemitic, we cannot take the opposite approach and let anything and everything slide, either.


Where, by whom, and how should this be decided? After the Saturday Night Live monologue by comedian Dave Chappelle this week, Jewish social media lit up with a debate about how to characterize his rant.  Some slammed it as popularizing and legitimizing antisemitism, while others saw it as humorous and completely ok, while others thought it wasn’t objectively wrong but the timing and environment in which it was shared made it objectionable and irresponsible.  For example, popular Jewish comedian Elon Gold  tweeted: “I’m in Israel and my phone keeps going off about [Dave Chapelle]’s monologue. I watched it 3X. There’s not a joke in there I wouldn’t do myself. Just not as well written/performed as Dave.”  Is social media the place for Jews to debate among ourselves what qualifies as antisemitism?  Is it decided by popular vote, or are there experts, leaders, and organizations dedicated to this cause that we should defer to? If I’m offended and you’re not, or vice versa, is one of us “right”? 


Do we only call out antisemitism when it’s on the “other side”?  Antisemitism is an ideology that transcends political affiliation. There are antisemites on the left, on the right, in both major political parties, and everywhere in between. Yet in this increasingly divisive political climate, there are many who are happy and eager to call out and take action against antisemitism coming from the “other side,” yet remain silent and implicitly tolerant of antisemitism coming from their own. Make no mistake, if the only antisemitism that merits a response from you is antisemitism coming from your political opponent, your credibility is damaged and your ability to be an advocate in this area is compromised. 


Engage or Estrange? Just because we can be offended doesn’t mean we always have to be.  While we often instinctively respond with outrage and calls for condemnation and cancellation, those aren’t necessarily the best strategies or the most prudent responses to serve our greater and more long term interests.  Sometimes, the answer is to engage and dialogue rather than to attack.  If we can educate, inform and turn an adversary into an advocate, we accomplish far more than if we label someone and box them into becoming the very thing we seek to oppose.  In 2017, I shared the story of Derek Black,  a white supremacist who experienced a Shabbos meal and completely turned around his worldview and his activism.  Recently, we hosted NBA veteran Meyers Leonard on Behind the Bima who made a terrible mistake using an antisemitic slur but immediately worked to educate himself, apologized genuinely, unconditionally, and profusely, and has spent 18 months making up for his mistake by being willing to recognize why his mistake was hurtful, learning about and talking to the community he hurt, and educating others to prevent future similar harm.  When is there hope and we should therefore engage, and when is someone beyond repair and we should estrange?


Are all offenses and responses equal? Sensitivity to antisemitism remains critical, but are we nuanced in appreciating the difference between someone who knowingly promotes something inherently antisemitic that renders them an antisemite, versus someone who promotes something hateful, critical, offensive, illegitimate, but not necessarily antisemitic, versus someone who defends someone in either of the first two categories while not directly making antisemitic statements themselves?  Do we treat an antisemite, an unknowing or negligent promoter of antisemitism,  and someone who has a bad “take” about an antisemite the same, or should there be differencs in how we respond? 


Cancel or Criticize? Is there a place between accepting and being indifferent to antisemitism on the one side and seeking to cancel and boycott those who say and post objectionable things?  Can’t we criticize, call out, ask for clarification, and demand contrition without calling to cancel?  Insisting on the termination of employment or of an endorsement contract is the nuclear option.  When and against whom should it be used?  Can we, should we have a more varied tool box of responses, options and approaches? Would we be better served and understood if we offer more than a knee-jerk reaction? And do we recognize there could be different responses based on different degrees of offense? 


My questions and doubts are not an excuse for me or you to withdraw from fighting and standing up to antisemitism. They are, I believe, critically important to consider in developing the best and most effective individual and collective strategy to be successful and to have an impact.  Our goal is not to be “right,” it is to be effective.  


We are at a critical and shocking crossroads, when it is more comfortable to express hate and even violence against Jews in the civilized world than anytime in my life. Whether you found Dave Chapelle's monologue amusing or offensive, one thing is clear, antisemitism is no laughing matter, we must be thoughtful in our response.