The intolerance of tolerance — America has gone too far

The intolerance of tolerance — America has gone too far
© New York Post

Anti-Semitism has always been a torment that Jews have been forced to reckon with for centuries. However, its resurgence both in the United States and abroad is alarming for a new reason.

The degree to which the mainstream of civil society has seemingly tolerated the most blatant acts of intolerance is alarming.

Not a day goes by without the report of anti-Semitic incidents in communities throughout America. This happens specifically in multiple Brooklyn neighborhoods, where acts of anti-Semitic violence against Orthodox Jews have become commonplace. Synagogue windows have been smashed and pedestrians were violently assaulted.

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Civil society has, by its actions or its failures to act, enabled such conduct to slowly work its way beyond the fringes of our society, both left and right, and infiltrate the mainstream of our social fabric.

Pittsburgh and Poway are but examples — perhaps the most frightening and brutal examples — of a resurgent anti-Semitism that is engulfing our country. 

According to a recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, nearly nine out of ten American Jews (88-percent) say anti-Semitism is a problem in the U.S. today — almost 40-percent polled call it a very serious problem. 

Nearly a third of the Jews polled have avoided publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might identify them as Jews; a quarter have avoided places or events out of concern for their safety; a third reported that Jewish institutions with which they are affiliated have been targeted by anti-Semitic attacks, graffiti or threats.  

Several weeks ago, Columbia University invited the prime minister of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad to address its Global Leadership Forum. Dr. Mohamad has faced accusations of being anti-Semitic and he has even questioned the Holocaust.

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But despite this history — known to all — one of the world’s most prestigious universities extended an invitation to him. After news of this invitation became public, I wrote to Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, who responded: 

You are correct that I find the anti-Semitic statements of Prime Minister Mahathir to be abhorrent, contrary to what we stand for, and deserving of condemnation. Nevertheless, it is in these instances that we are most strongly resolved to insist that our campus remain an open forum and to protect the freedoms essential to our University community.

This is the tolerance of intolerance. “Protect the freedoms essential to our University community.” But what of the freedom to be sheltered from vilification based on one’s religious identity? Must an “open forum” include the right to slander and abuse?

In his speech, the Malaysian Prime Minister defended his absolute right to preach hatred: “When you say ‘you cannot be anti-Semitic’, there is no free speech. I am exercising my right to free speech. Why is it I can’t say something against the Jews…”

So, there we have it. He is granted license to spew his venomous remarks, at the invitation of one of America’s most prestigious institutions. And his right to do so defended — tolerated — by one of America’s foremost intellectuals.

This defense of seeming hate speech was from the president of Columbia University. With anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head across our nation and beyond, President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University chose deliberately to tolerate the intolerant.

Our American democratic tradition, rooted in First Amendment values, has seemingly placed the right to speak freely above all other societal norms. But one must question whether such a hierarchy of values in fact fosters the democratic and pluralistic ideals that we aspire to, or whether it simply legitimizes conduct that carries with it the seeds of the ultimate demise of democracy itself.

Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal.

What about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.

Allen Fagin is the CEO of the Orthodox Union (OU), the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network.