By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Here in Israel, one is conscious while standing at every intersection to be wary of “rammers” who are looking for a quick entry to paradise at the expense of your life and limb. The possibility of peace is not even on the horizon, and Iran continues in a stealthy way on its path to develop nuclear weapons. The region is in turmoil. And yet, with all that, Israel is an oasis of tranquility. Israel just ranked fifth, sixth or eleventh – depending on the survey – on the global indices of happiest nations, in each case ahead of the United States. People here, for the most part, are calm, happy, living their lives, basking in the beauty of the land, its natural development, its spiritual resources and the opportunities that G-d has provided our generation.
From this vantage point, the same cannot be said of Americans, who appear to be constantly agitated and uneasy when some are not altogether threatening or carrying out acts of mayhem. The recent election campaign, and perhaps even the last decade, created intense polarization that apparently will not readily abate. And the levels of intolerance have escalated to proportions that are unprecedented in living memory, and if truth still matters, it must be underscored that the intolerance is coming almost exclusively from the political and religious Left. They should look in the mirror and take stock.
At UC Berkeley a few weeks ago and at NYU more recently, conservative speakers who were invited to campus were harassed until they could not speak. At Berkeley, protesters started fires and burned buildings as part of the freedom of expression that they deny others. This censorship has become routine on campuses of higher “learning” and others places where people who could formerly be described as “liberals” resided.
Conversely, I recently attended a conference in Yerushalayim (mainly of right-wingers) at which a panoply of politicians spoke, among them Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party. He said some preposterous things that evoked laughter from the audience, but no one heckled, and he even received polite applause when he concluded, not for what he said but for coming to say it. A subsequent speaker noted the contrast to last spring’s Haaretz conference in Tel Aviv where Minister Naphtali Bennett was invited to speak, and as soon as he opened his mouth, he was heckled, shouted down, told to leave by unruly members of the audience who simply did not want to hear what he had to say. He was only able to continue when he told the left-wing audience that “you will not be able to silence me,” and the police came to escort the demonstrators out. If you have examples of right-wing censorship, please share them. I can’t think of any recent ones.
Of course, I have enjoyed this same type of pathetic, pitiable intolerance myself by a small band of radical, non-Orthodox feminists who take issue with something or another that I have said. They have called for protests and cancelations to some of my speeches as well and simply lie when they don’t get their way. I have addressed conferences at which they claimed I was banned from speaking, and no protesters showed up at any of my recent talks in Israel. Their calls for boycotts fail so miserably that after their recent attempt was publicized, I was invited to speak at five additional shuls and Yeshivot in response to their risible intolerance. I happily complied. And the nice crowds that attend are always put off by their sheer arrogance and methods so whatever their cause is, if they indeed have a cause, their tactics are counterproductive.
The broader question is: from where do they derive the hubris, the small-mindedness and the crudeness to try to prevent people from speaking? On campus after campus, there is a wave of insularity that has created a class of young people who cannot abide an opinion different from theirs, and refuse to allow others to hear it. They have even threatened professors who do not silence students who express views that challenge the political correctness that has become their godless gospel. Colleges have become less places of knowledge than venues of indoctrination where dissenters are persecuted. What has happened?
The Midrash (Breisheet Raba 8:5) records that when G-d decided to create man, the angels were divided on the propriety and wisdom of such a creation, a hybrid of the spiritual and the animalistic. “Kindness” suggested that man be created because he would perform acts of kindness in the world, while “truth” insisted that it was a bad idea because man was full of lies. But “G-d took truth and threw it to the ground,” and created man.
But “G-d’s seal is truth” (Masechet Shabbat 55a). How could He discard truth as if it is meaningless?
In “B’ahava Ve’emunah”(“With Love and Faith”), one of the popular Shabbat handouts in Israel, Rav Natan Kotler has serialized an analysis of issues relating to Mesorah andmachloket in Chazal. Last week, he answered the above-referenced question as follows: There are two types of truth (citing Likutei Halachot, Ribit). There is “emet metakenet,” a refined truth that is open to all ideas and can garner something from everyone. That type of truth forges a society that is tolerant and welcoming, and in which the truth emerges as a distilled composite of all ideas. In a sense, it echoes Rav Kook’s explanation of how “Torah scholars spread peace in the world” (Ein Aya, to Masechet Berachot 64a). They succeed by hearing all sides, by seeing all points of views, by engaging in dialogue and discussion before deciding a particular issue. Even when some opinions are rejected, as they should be, that type of “truth” is still favored by G-d.
Nevertheless, there is also an “emet harsenet,” a destructive truth, wherein people see only their opinions and never entertain the possibility that their approach might be wrong. Proponents of this destructive truth negate all other views and outlooks and will even try to suppress all who disagree with them. This has been the way of dictators throughout history, this is the type of “truth” that G-d threw to the ground so that man could be created, and this type of “destructive truth” is the stock-in-trade of the left-wing elements that are plaguing the Western world and wrecking any refined form of public discourse.
On so many issues that have engendered so much unrest, unhappiness and distress on the political and religious left, is it really possible to maintain that there is only one opinion? That there is no other possible opinion? Whether the issue is the merits of President Trump, immigration, abortion, affirmative action, building a wall, fighting Islamic terror, national security, law and order, police conduct in the inner cities, female clergy, and a host of others, can any honest, rational person contend that there is only one possible view? Theirs on the left? That there is no other opinion that can be considered or uttered in civil society? What misguided petulance. That is the “destructive truth” that we are currently witnessing. Isn’t it healthier to see both sides of a debate, even if one side then is found to be more appealing, logical or even correct?
One can agree or disagree on any issue, but the notion that there is only one possible conclusion that may be spoken in public – the subtext of the activist left – has left American society on the brink of disintegration. And nothing more nullifies the traditions of free speech and the values of the Torah than this type of rank bigotry.
This is where the “Hitler” narrative always enters the picture. The plethora of people on the left who regularly call this person or another “Hitler” are essentially saying that their ideology is pure evil, and no further discussion is needed. There is no other side. There is nothing to talk about, no possible nuance, and nothing missing in their analysis. Pure evil. These comparisons are not only odious and facile but they also tend to diminish the real evil of a Hitler, may his memory be blotted out.
Even supporters of President Trump concede that he has uttered his share of foolish, repugnant and insensitive remarks to which people have rightly taken offense. People are allowed to take offense, even though there is not yet a constitutional right guaranteeing that no American will ever feel offended. So take offense – but then move on! Raise your children, take care of your homes, go to work, learn Torah, do mitzvot, do something productive. Again, at this great distance, I look at the “protests” on American TV from these left-wing groups and marvel at the vacuity of it all. It accomplishes little except for the momentary pleasure of venting but is completely futile in the real world. Conservatives suffered through two Obama terms but I don’t recall riots, protests, prayers for his failure and an inability to function normally in the world. Conservatives didn’t need safe spaces, coloring books or crying towels. Has the American spirit been so infantilized that people collapse emotionally at the slightest disappointment?
Rav Kook wrote (Shmoneh Kvatzim, 2:22) that people who look favorably on others, whatever their views, are calmer, enjoy life more, and gain an appreciation of other people with whom they might not necessarily agree. The more we love other creatures of G-d, the better off we are and the closer we are to G-d as well.
I would reckon that the vast majority of Clinton supporters/Trump opponents have moved on. They may be wary of the new administration but do not want it to fail. But the activists who enjoyed years of ideological authoritarianism and political despotism over their foes do not want to accept that time, politics and the world have moved on, and partly because their tyranny of ideas was so abhorrent to the American ethos.
It’s time for everyone to chill (even just a little), take a deep breath, form a loyal and productive opposition if warranted, find common ground on whatever issues are possible, and develop a little openness to the views of others. They might learn something, and they might indeed start enjoying life again. It is not healthy – physically or spiritually – to always live on edge, ready to crumble at the slightest irritation.
After all, life is short, and it is unfortunate to go through life angry, miserable and tormented by the politics of what is, even now, a prosperous nation living through peaceful times. It might even help the United States nudge a few places higher on the international happiness index.