It strikes me that I have been writing a lot of late about the rush to madness all around us. Bakeries fined $150,000 for declining to bake a wedding cake with two grooms on top. Leading Western nations eager to resume trade with Iran and grease its acquisition of nuclear weapons, even as it reiterates its hope to wipe Israel off the face of the map. That kind of stuff.
This week's edition comes from the groves of academe. Kirsten Powers has written a new book called The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. (Powers, incidentally, is a Democrat.) Much of that book is devoted to American universities where left-wing students have sent the message that "anyone [who] strays off the leftist script . . . might find themselves investigated, harassed, ostracized, even expelled" because their speech has given offense.
Nearly sixty percent of the colleges and universities in America have campus speech codes that dramatically restrict, if not obliterate, freedom of speech. One, for instance, bars students from "offending . . . a member of the University community." Fordham University prohibits using email to "insult." Offense and insult are determined by the ones so offended.
A group of Scholars of Color at UCLA recently disrupted a class at UCLA, charging that the tenured professor had committed "micro-aggressions" against them. Example: The professor changed one students capitalization of "indigenous" to lower case, and thus disrespected her ideological point of view. Were the students punished for disrupting a class? No. The 79-year-old professor was instructed to stay off the graduate campus for a year, and UCLA commissioned an "Independent Investigative Report on Acts of Bias and Discrimination Involving Faculty."
At Marquette University, a Jesuit school, Professor John McAdams was stripped of tenure and fired for a blogpost, in which he criticized by name a graduate teaching assistant who had told a student in her class that he could not defend the traditional Catholic teaching on same-gender marriage in class because it might offend some other students. McAdams wrote that the graduate student had used "a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong and are not be argued against on their merits, but are deemed 'offensive' and need to be shut up." His firing proved how right he was and how effective those tactics have proven.
Some of these incidents would be hilarious if the mindset behind them were not so frightening. Smith College president Kathleen McCartney was being assiduously politically correct when she wrote after two grand juries declined to indict two white police officers who had killed black men in the line of duty, "As members of the Smith community we are struggling, and we are hurting. We raise our voiced in protest." She went on to outline campus actions to "heal those in pain," "to teach, learn and share what we know," and to "work for equity and justice."
Poor McCartney soon found herself assailed by black students who claimed that her hashtag "All lives matter," had invalidated the experience of black lives, by not singling out for mention that black lives matter, and thereby removing the focus "on institutional violence against black people." McCartney apologized abjectly.
NOT ALL OFFENSE IS EQUAL. Jewish students live in a hostile environment, which can at times be genuinely frightening, on many campuses across America. No one, it seems, is particularly concerned about aggressions – micro or otherwise – against them. On about 200 campuses, there are annual, multiday Israel Apartheid Week rallies calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. Many of the events are formally sponsored by academic departments and promoted by professors on their emails.
Boston police had to protect pro-Israel students over three successive days from pro-Palestinian mobs shouting, "Jews back to Birkenau." One would think that those chants would be deemed at least mildly offensive.
Ruth Wisse, in "Anti-Semitism Goes to School" (in the May Mosaic) describes how a group of pro-Palestinian student groups demanded that candidates for student government at UCLA sign a to pledge that they will not participate in trips to Israel organized by groups like AIPAC or Aish International's Hasbara Fellowships. Most candidates refused to sign, but the one elected student government president did.
Though expressing discomfort with the pledge, UCLA's Jewish chancellor declined to go further on the grounds that promotion of the pledge is a form of sancrosanct free-speech. When it comes to leftist, minorities, and those otherwise easily offended, the subjective hurt of those offended trumps free speech; when it comes to insult and intimidation of Jewish students, however, the value of campus free inquiry and speech is suddenly rediscovered. As Wisse puts it, "Institutions that enforce 'sensitivity training' to insure toleration for gays, blacks and other minorities may inadvertently be bringing some of these groups together in common hostility to Jews as the only campus minority against whom hostility is condoned."
Crossing the Line 2: The New Face on Anti-Semitism on Campus, an excellent documentary by Jerusalem U, which produces films to bolster the Jewish identity of students, intersperses interviews with Jewish students with scenes form campus anti-Israel rallies. In one surreal scene, Becky Sebo, a student at Ohio University speaking against a student government BDS resolution, is dragged away by police in handcuffs. The police were called by the student government president, who we see in another scene pouring a bucket of blood on herself in support of BDS. Over fifty percent of Jewish students report that they have personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.
BUT MY PURPOSE AS SHAVUOS APPROACHES is not to detail one more example of collective derangement, but rather to inquire as to whether we can use that derangement positively. I have long felt, for instance, that there is an optimistic side to anti-Semitism, the more irrational the better.
Asked by Louis XIV to point to one supernatural phenomenon, the great philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal replied, "The Jews, your Majesty, the Jews." And the protean nature of Jew hatred, taking ever new forms, is part of that phenomenon. The Torah long ago predicted, "Among those nations, you shall find no respite, no rest for your foot. . . . You will live in constant suspense and stand in dread, both by day and night, never sure of your existence" (Devarim 28:65-67).
The obsession with the Jews, wrote the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain in 1937, results from the mission of the Jews to bring knowledge of G-d to the world. More recently, David Goldman speculates that nations aware of their own mortality experience eternity envy of the Jews, the eternal people, despite their unceasing persecution and small numbers. Even the nations of the world acknowledge through their hatred that we are Hashem's chosen people.
In a similar fashion, we can look around at a world that has gone off the tracks and see what happens to a world without G-d. What has resulted from the vaunted freedom of '60s that promised the end of all human repression and the elixir of happiness. On college campuses relations between men and women have never been so fraught or so litigious. Every decade rates of depression among the young rise. Women approach their thirties and beyond without being able to find a man willing to assume adult responsibilities and marry them, or one that they deem worthy of marrying.
Rather than just watching with horror and growing depressed, we can use what is happening around us to strengthen our commitment to our island of sanity. Instead of being more connected and curious about the world around us, let us reinforce the boundaries and hold ever faster to the Torah, as a swimmer holding onto to a log in a raging river.
The thing I'm currently looking forward to most is fifteen minutes daily of Ramchal's Derech Hashem in my morning shiur, after three years going through Mesilas Yesharim twice. I know that those fifteen minutes will give me something to think about and work on every day. The more such fifteen minutes we can multiply in our day, the less we will find ourselves worrying about Iran and its enablers.
As these thoughts were going through my head, I heard a drashah from Rabbi Moshe Stav last leil Shabbos that seemed to capture the point I'm trying to make. At the end of parashas Behar, the Torah describes the gradual impoverishment of one whose desire for money prevents him from observing shemittah, until he is forced to sell himself as a slave to a gentile. Just afterwards, the parashah concludes, "My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Santuary shall you revere – I am Hashem."
What is the connection of Shabbos and the Beis HaMikdash to the Jewish slave? Rashi explains that while living with his gentile master, the Jewish slave might look at his gentile master, who is so much more successful than him, and think, "My master engages in licentiousness, so will I. My master worships avodah zara, so will I."
Instead the Torah instructs us to think about their idol worship and realize that it is all self-worship. Each one does what he wants where he wants – this one prostrating himself under this tree and the next one under another tree.
Not so the Jewish people. We have one G-d, and He sets the rules. Only in His Temple, where His Presence dwells, do we prostrate ourselves.
And when we recognize the radical difference of having a G-d Who stands over us, and not the opposite, we seek more fervently the connection to Him, most powerfully in His Sanctuary and in that sanctuary in time, Shabbos, a period completely cut off from creating and building, sanctified to experience only our relationship to Him.
We have nothing to envy from the world around. But to keep from being ensnared, we must take refuge in our world, the world of the Torah given to us at Sinai.