Cancel the ‘Cancel Culture’ phenomenon with sincere self-scrutiny

Highlighting others’ sins is spiritually lazy. Redemption comes from confronting our own flaws.

By
October 1, 2019 21:04
ENJOY THE holiday, without all the politics

ENJOY THE holiday, without all the politics. (photo credit: REUTERS)

To every rabbi whose Kol Nidre sermon will bash or boost Bibi or Trump – ditch it and start rewriting. If you want to offer political commentary, apply to MSNBC or Fox. Don’t waste the most popular Jewish spiritual opportunity of the year by turning High Holy Day services into a political rally. Your congregants probably know what you think already, and we, the Jewish people, need more from you.

These political sermons rarely include self-reflection or self-criticism. Remember: ’tis the season for breast-beating, not finger-pointing.'

Similarly, if you address Israel-Diaspora relations, please add some nuance. Last year, I learned that among American Jewish leaders, “Israel-Diaspora relations” often means “why Israel sucks and my kids intermarried.” Beyond smearing your fellow Jews, one-sidedly, self-righteously, the conversation has turned inside out and upside down.

In this inside-out discussion, we emphasize our dissimilarities, not our similarities; our clashes, not our connections. We yell about the political forces pulling us apart, ignoring the spiritual, communal, historical and friendship forces keeping us together. How can so many who celebrate “diversity” fail to tolerate any differences of opinion?

Disagreements are not only natural but should be welcomed. Historically, those sure of their own virtue have proved far more dangerous than the unsure. By allowing ourselves to be constructively confused, we can learn from others, listening generously, not censoriously.

Filtering out the good while magnifying the bad, we often caricature American Jews as being so “woke” they never sleep, and Israelis as so far-right they can’t admit they’re ever wrong.

Our communities aren’t caricatures. True, American Jews tend to be Isaiahan, universalistic, while Israelis are Davidian, particularistic. But American liberal nationalism includes strong doses of Davidian patriotism and pride in US history, while Zionism includes strong Isaiahan doses of liberalism and altruism.

The conversation is inside out because we’ve turned upside down. Polls show that most American Jews are instinctively pro-Israel, while many American Jewish leaders treat Israel as their favorite piñata. When I grew up, and the Conservative movement dominated American Jewry, rabbis alternated between guilt-tripping their congregants for not being observant enough or Zionist enough. Today, many younger rabbis are tikkun-olamist social justice warriors preaching from their congregants’ Left. Their constant criticism of Israel adds to the noise – feeding the impression of two communities diverging – without building the solid foundations these rabbis need to keep “Jews in the pews.”

First, teach to love, to root for your team; once you’re committed, start criticizing, constructively.

Instead, too many rabbis, intellectuals and writers define the Western Wall by Israel’s religious conflicts, while blaming Israel for the Palestinian impasse. Yet, most Jews still see the Kotel as their spiritual home, not a political football, while most blame Palestinian terrorism for the stalemate.

Similarly, some Israeli leaders love mocking American Jews. While most Israelis ignore the Diaspora, they’re nevertheless instinctively pro-peoplehood.

Ultimately, obsessing about Diaspora-Israel relations sidetracks us. What matters is every Jew’s relationship to Judaism and Zionism. Those with solid identities absorb disappointments and tolerate differences. Fragile relations come from fragile loyalties.

THE MISLEADINGLY cranky Diaspora-Israel conversation reflects the negative filtering and melodramatic catastrophizing distorting today’s political culture. We vacuum through people’s pasts, scrutinizing Twitter accounts, school records, hunting down everyone’s darkest moment. Cancel Culture defines those who dare disagree with us by their worst sins, with no path back, no repentance.

Simultaneously, we find endless excuses justifying our allies’ bad behavior. Most Democrats gave Bill Clinton’s menacing lechery and investigative stonewalling the same pass Republicans give Trump’s.

I applaud the #MeToo movement’s successes in outing brutes and confronting sexism. But must every too-handsy male be punished for his sins with the professional death penalty of lifetime excommunication? Washington misses the elegant, scalpel-sharp wit of Leon Wieseltier, who would have made mincemeat of Trump – and of the insanity Trump evokes, Right and Left. Jerusalem misses the passionate, patriotic voice of Ari Shavit, who taught the Left how to love Israel despite its flaws, while confronting Israel’s enemies, especially the nuclear-hungry Iranians and the terrorism-addicted Palestinians.

Spare us Justin Trudeau’s decades-old blackface photos. And unearthing offensive comments Ilhan Omar made decades ago is distracting; repudiate her antisemitism today.

But our cruel, gossip-heavy world of hearsay and guilt by association weaponizes history – without proportion, or statutes of limitations. The New Yorker, once the Harvard of magazines, recently ran a 14,000-word hit piece libeling Alan Dershowitz, featuring gratuitous, anonymous, unfounded, unproved complaints from “several Harvard law students” or “one female student” – all from forever ago.

Sadly, Harvard ain’t Harvard anymore, having ousted another legendary law professor, Ronald Sullivan, as Winthrop House’s faculty dean, because he dares defend reprehensible clients like Harvey Weinstein. Isn’t that what defense lawyers do?

Harvard, at least, resisted the Cancel Cult’s calls to remove the Sackler name from its Asian Art museum. Harvard’s benefactor, Dr. Arthur Sackler, died in 1987; his two brothers bought his share in the company which nine years later started marketing the opiod Oxytocin.

In Psalm 51:5, King David says: “My sin always haunts me.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that remembering past sins, even after repenting, spurs you “to greater heights within the ranks of holiness, to deeper levels of repentance....”

That’s the Jew-jitsu this season of repentance demands. Choose self-improvement, not self-righteousness. Highlighting others’ sins is spiritually lazy. Redemption comes from confronting our own flaws.

This Yom Kippur, stop filtering, catastrophizing. Things aren’t so bleak. Stop being inside out and upside down. Start moving forward toward deepening your own identity. Scrutinize yourself more, while canceling others less – except when really necessary.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.


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