Want to Fight “Cancel Culture?” Start with the Israel Debate

The theme of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was “uncancel America.” But when news broke that one of the speakers, a hip hop artist named Young Pharoah, had called Judaism “a complete lie,” CPAC cancelled him. Which led Young Pharoah to denounce CPAC for practicing “cancel culture,” which just goes to show: Denouncing “cancel culture” is a lot easier than defining what it actually is.

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That’s because almost everyone supports cancelling something. Most people think it’s fine to disinvite, or even fire, someone who praises slavery or calls women inferior. The Bill of Rights protects Nazis’ right to speak. It doesn’t require that anyone give them a job.

Since almost everyone agrees that some views deserve cancellation, the “cancel culture” debate largely boils down to an argument over which views should be beyond the pale. Progressives generally take a harder line when it comes to racism, sexism and homophobia: For instance, punishing white people for using the N word. Conservatives generally take a harder line when it comes to patriotism: For instance, punishing professors for saying the United States deserved the 9/11 attacks. Establishing a consistent, non-ideological, standard for what should be cancelled is impossible because what people consider unacceptable is inextricably bound up with what they believe.

But if people of differing political persuasions can’t agree on what should be cancelled, some might at least agree on a few common predispositions. For instance, people shouldn’t be punished or fired without a thorough, impartial, investigation of what they said or did. Except in the most egregious cases, people shouldn’t lose their jobs for a single offense. Institutions should err on the side of open debate and forgiveness.

And one more thing. Before demanding that others practice these principles, we should try to practice them ourselves. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Noam Chomsky’s argument that Americans should focus more on the human rights abuses committed by our government than those committed by our adversaries because we are more responsible for abuses done in our name. A similar principle applies here: openness and empathy begins at home.

Here’s how that applies to me. Like many straight, white, men, I fear being accused of racism, sexism or homophobia. If that happened, I would yearn to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be judged for the totality of what I’ve done, not on a single incident. I would worry that people with whom I had disagreements might exploit my sudden vulnerability in hopes of silencing my voice. I would hope that Black people, LGBT people, women—anyone whose personal experience gave them some authority on the matter on which I was accused—would come to my aid.

But compelling that solidarity from others is not within my power. What is within my power is to express that solidarity myself when my identity places me on the side of accusers, not the accused.

As it happens, the American Jewish community—of which I am a part—is one of the most potent and unforgiving purveyors of “cancel culture” in the United States. American Jewish donors have reportedly bankrolled Canary Mission, which creates profiles of supposed anti-Semites—many of them Palestinian American students who protest Israel—and on the basis of one quote, offered without context, seeks to make them unemployable after they graduate. The Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have all urged the federal government to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that includes among its examples “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Partly because of lobbying from American Jewish groups, many states are considering writing that definition into their anti-discrimination laws as well. Numerous American and international Jewish organizations are demanding that Facebook do the same.

Whatever you think of the many recent episodes of left-wing “cancel culture”—some of which I find genuinely troubling—these are individual incidents, occurring at particular universities, publications or businesses. They do not harness the power of the state. The American Jewish establishment, by contrast, is doing something more far-reaching: It is urging the United States government and one of the world’s most powerful social media companies to write the cancellation of anti-Zionist speech into their official policies. If it is anti-Semitic to apply a double standard to Israel, as the IHRA definition suggests, then Palestinians who boycott Israel but not China can be penalized as bigots. (Even though it’s Israel, not China, that is denying them their basic rights). If it is anti-Semitic to call Israel racist—even though Israel manifestly treats Jews differently than Palestinians—then virtually anyone who calls for equality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea risks being deemed a bigot, not by a single college administrator but by the United States government itself.

Some of America’s most prominent critics of left-wing “cancel culture” are Jews with hawkish views on Israel, the kind of folks whose opinions carry weight inside the American Jewish establishment. They may never embrace my views on the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But if they merely applied their own stated belief in empathy and open debate  to our own community—if they spent less time throwing stones and more time inspecting our communal glass house—I suspect they would see that the IHRA definition threatens the very principles they cherish.

Imagine if the American Jewish establishment and its allied intellectuals declared that, when it comes to the debate over Israel, our community will model the principles of open debate, tolerance, forgiveness and due process that we advocate for America as a whole. Imagine if we said: Let the battle against “cancel culture” begin with us.

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Special Guest:

On our Zoom call this Friday, March 5, for paid subscribers only, we’ll be joined by the eminent Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, perhaps America’s foremost historian of the Palestinian experience. He’ll talk about the past, present and future of the Palestinian national movement. The call will be back at its regular time: Friday, Noon EST. Subscribe and join us. 

Other stuff:

If you’re worried about how the Biden administration is handling Iran—and you should be—read this excellent twitter thread by Trita Parsi.

If you’re not worried about American democracy already, read this terrifying New York Times report on Republican efforts to prevent another “stolen” election by making it harder to vote. 

If you want to understand the Israel-Palestine vaccination controversy, here’s a simple but powerful primer.

If you like comics, read this terrific Jewish Currents essay on Stan Lee. (And subscribe).

Hope to see you on Friday,

Peter