New York Times columnists Bret Stephens and Roger Cohen repeatedly bashed the left for not tolerating dissent at a panel about Israel in New York last week. Cohen called for “unsafe” speech and “open discussions, fierce debate” so as to fend off a “monolithic” McCarthyist “mob” on campuses.
But the panel itself embodied Jewish intolerance of dissent: All three speakers on stage at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan were ardent Zionists, introduced by a JCC official, Dava Schub, as people who could “articulate our connection to and our commitment to Israel. . . the great Jewish project which should unite us but somehow divides us.”
The panel included one Israel critic, Roger Cohen, to counter two rightwing Zionists, Stephens and the event’s moderator, New York Times editor Bari Weiss.
But if anything was plain after 100 minutes of discussion, it is that liberal Jewish institutions like the JCC need to limit division over Israel. The organization has no room on its stage for those inside the Jewish community (and the U.S.) who do not see the need for a Jewish state. And God forbid a Palestinian would care to open her mouth.
Stephens and Cohen both gave speeches about the intolerance of the left.
Stephens’s tone was angry. He said the “toxic” leftwing concept of intersectionality is anti-Semitic; and that if leftists don’t “check their prejudices at the door . . . it’s us who should want no part of them, ever.” He likened Palestinian leadership to pornography (because he’ll know it when he sees it) and said that when Zionists are criticized by students for defending apartheid, they should say “F.U.” back to the students, and do so with a smile.
Roger Cohen was far more high-minded. “Without civilized disagreement, liberal society dies,” he said; and the absence of dissent in leftwing discourse is McCarthyite.
We human beings contain multitudes. Human beings contain multitudes. [He cites Whitman and Goethe.] But there’s something going on today whereby that’s not allowed any more. People are not complex, they’re not multifaceted, they don’t have internal conflicts, they don’t believe one thing that may not fit exactly with another thing.
But yes, they do believe it! And they believe it because they’re human. That’s what they feel, that’s what they think, that’s what they believe. And this form of trying to impose a kind of monolithic order, where because you think one thing, you have to think another, it’s grotesque. At its worst, at its endpoint, it’s McCarthyite. And we have to be very vigilant about resisting it.
Cohen also was eloquent about the idea that universities are collapsing under the mob-rule of monolithic ideology.
We don’t want safe spaces in universities. That’s the last thing we want. Universities should be profoundly unsafe. That’s where you want to be challenged. That’s where your mind is being formed. It’s a very exciting moment in life. And if all you do is go to college to feel safe, then you’re missing out on an essential element of what that moment in one’s education should be. At least that’s what I think. So. . . for all the people who want us to be monoliths, who want to shut us down, who want to stop discussion…they’re loud, they make a noise, mob mobilization is very easy these days. . . The answer is to fight back, to speak out, to talk. To try and organize forums where discussions can get pretty animated, even vitriolic…
He also said that all three New York Times staffers on stage believe that “open minds, open discussions, fierce debate, disagreement” are at the “foundation of Jewish ethics and Jewish identity itself.”
But again: there was no open or fierce discussion on stage about that idealistic trend in Jewish life, anti-Zionism and non-Zionism. All the panelists praised the creation of a Jewish state and the marvels of Israeli culture. Stephens said that everyone in Tel Aviv is beautiful, and the nukes are wonderful; and Cohen said, “I’m a Zionist. I support the state of Israel, strongly,” and reiterated his theme that Jews in the west would be unsafe were it not for the “new Jews” of Israel.
The same lack of free speech is evident at the New York Times, which has no anti-Zionist columnists. No, its latest hires are hacks for Israel. (And you think this site is tribal!)
It was a measure of the narrow range of the panel that when Bari Weiss asked the group to name the most important books on Israel, all six books named were by Jewish Zionists.
“Anything by Amos Oz, and Six Days of War [by Michael Oren],” Stephens said.
“Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi. And Matti Friedman’s book Pumpkin Flowers,” Weiss said.
“I think 1948 by Benny Morris is very important. And I think even at this distance, From Beirut to Jerusalem remains a great book,” Roger Cohen said.
To his credit, Roger Cohen also was harshly critical of the occupation and acknowledged the crisis of Zionism.
The occupation is corrupting, ladies and gentlemen, it is corrupting, there is no escaping it. There is simply no escaping it. And we see it, day after day, in Israel. You cannot exercise this kind of power in that kind of way for that many years without it getting inside you. It gets inside you. So I as an American Jew — I can see why many young Jews in this country feel growing unease about what Israel is and especially about what Israel is becoming. That doesn’t mean that America’s castiron strategic support for Israel and the support of the Jewish community for this critical alliance is going to erode at any point that I can see.
P.S. I would urge those looking for books to get two books outside the Zionist lens: In the Land of My Birth, by Reja-e Busailah, about a Jerusalem family’s experience of the birth of Israel, and The Israel Lobby, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, about that castiron support.)