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Safe spaces and the community of the good

Burning flags in the street is not going to win friends or influence people to join your 'community of the good'

Yesterday, I read about a café in America that has imposed a ban on political discussion. An employee wrote tearfully that following the election, people were flouting the ban and destroying what was supposed to be a “safe space.”

I suddenly realized that although I was born in America, I am truly a European. A café without political discussion? What is the POINT?

My happiest moments over the last few years have been those vibrant discussions of politics, religion, history, books, poetry, films — all held in a café after shul on Shabbat. One of my dearest friends is a South African socialist, a playwright and activist, who went to prison in South Africa for his beliefs. My other best friends include a policewoman who worked as a terrorism detective (a conservative) and another conservative who speaks around five different languages and who translates for the police and social services. The socialist is the ex-boyfriend of the conservative linguist; why should politics divide us when we have so many common values?

We argued, we shared book recommendations, and sometimes we even convinced each other to see the world in a different way. Perhaps this is something that only thrives in certain circles, or maybe it’s just very Jewish. Whatever it is, it seems to be in stark contrast to this “safe space” malarkey, in which people find disagreement so threatening that they refrain from communicating altogether.

The most concerning aspect of the “safe space” notion is that it is about “safety” for some, and enforced silence for others, and on campuses it is often the Jews who are silenced.

The student newspaper for McGill University, for instance, has taken the stand that they refuse to publish anything “Zionist.” “The Daily maintains an editorial line of not publishing pieces which promote a Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we consider to be oppressive.” Needless to say, Jews do not consider our right to self-determination to be “oppressive,” and we have not lobbied to end Muslim domination in any of the 56 nations that form the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

In the 1980s, there were similar attempts to silence Jewish students when it was declared that “Zionism is racism” and “racism will be no-platformed.” Jewish student organizations were banned because they supported or had ties with Israel. The chairman of the Union of Jewish Students, Moshe Foreman, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph:

“This was one of the most vicious anti-Zionist debates I have ever attended. Pro-Israel speakers were subjected to a barrage of abuse from hecklers. It was not a debate, it was a ritual. I have never seen such venom and hatred as I saw on this day and it was not coming from Arab students but from supporters of the Socialist Workers Party” (from Dave Rich, The Left’s Jewish Problem).

We are seeing a recurrence of such behavior in Britain, for example, in the recent decision of the National Union of Students to revoke the right of Jewish students to choose their representative on the Union’s Committee for Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism. The concept of “safe spaces” for Jews was well and truly destroyed when a baying mob of anti-Israel protesters surrounded a group of Jews at University College London recently, disrupting the invited speaker again and again, pinning one young Jewish student to the wall, shouting abuse at the Jews and causing such havoc that the speaker, Hen Mazzig, struggled to be heard. After the meeting, the police had to escort the small group of Jews to safety. This howling mob of people hurling abuse were not the KKK: they were the “Palestinian Society.”

David Hirsh has written with great insight on what he calls the “politics of position.” He spells out the ways in which the new Left regards itself as “the community of the good,” a group which believes itself to hold a monopoly on lofty ethics and moral purity, and which reviles as “racist,” “uneducated,” and “hateful” those who do not share their political opinions. In fact, participants in the “community of the good” go so far as to reject those who differ on the smallest detail; to belong to this community, you must agree with every tenet or risk the most vitriolic ostracism. Hirsh sees such attitudes as demonstrating “a preference within contemporary left-wing culture for defining opponents as not belonging rather than seeking to win them over.” He goes on to say that “opponents are constructed as being outside of the community of the good or the progressive.”

I have experienced this on Facebook, for instance when a friend of a friend attacked me with explosive hostility — which I can live with — but what I found interesting was that my friend stepped in and, literally, “vouched” for my “Leftist credentials.” She did not engage in the argument, which had become irrelevant. Rather, it was a matter of whether I could hold such and such an opinion and still “belong.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been referred to as a Republican (said in scathing terms), although I’ve never voted Republican in my life, and I’ve been called “Tory Scum,” and (on an anti-Semitic hate site) a “Zio-Nazi.” And yet, I would regard myself has having fairly left-wing values. In fact, I’ve also been called an execrable socialist by an American who thinks that having a National Health Service is excessively leftist.

The vilification of political opponents and the conviction that they are “outside the community of the good” is happening on a grand scale in America right now, but before I begin this discussion, let me first say that I deplore Donald Trump, and am revolted by the man’s misogyny. As for his positions on the issues, I find him strangely difficult to pin down. He will support an issue, then reject it, then equivocate; his stances change not only with time, but with the audience to whom they are delivered. This is partly, I think, why he initially refused to distance himself from the support of extremists such as the KKK (who I am happy to regard as “deplorables” and many other things besides). His rallies were deeply disturbing, but also strangely contradictory; he held up a rainbow flag at one event, voicing support for LGBT people, but he has also said that he and his (extremely anti-Gay) running mate Mike Pence will bring in a raft of hostile anti-gay legislation.

While I vote conservative in the UK (they are the only party that understands and rejects anti-Semitism in all its forms), I am a Democrat in America, because I am also a feminist — and I confess that I gained huge enjoyment from finding myself accepted by the online American “community of the good.” There was an overwhelming sense of joy, camaraderie and hope, and I would be delighted if I could experience this every day of my life.

However, it was short-lived. Following the election there came an explosion of vitriol, directed mainly at anyone who voted Trump. I am not sure why I am not consumed with rage at Trump voters, but perhaps it’s because the ones I know are so reasonable, and so likable. For whatever reason, I feel distressed by the lashings of splenetic hatred for Trump supporters that I am seeing online.

That is not to say that I think violence is acceptable. In the aftermath of the election, the media are showing us the worst and most violent acts being perpetrated by the most objectionable Trump supporters. Swastikas and pro-Trump messages have been spraypainted around Philadelphia (“the city of brotherly love”), and Muslim women are having their headscarves ripped off. One gay man was horribly beaten, and I have no doubt that there is a spike in hate crime similar to the one reported by the police following the Brexit vote. I can unreservedly say that I deplore all of these particular Trump supporters. However, I am not sure what the anti-Trump demonstrators hope to accomplish by protesting and rioting in the streets. By all means, we should begin to prepare for the next election, but burning flags in the street is not going to win friends — and I was horrified to see a video of angry Leftists kicking the daylights out of a Trump supporter they had beaten to the ground.

Finally: what does Donald Trump’s election mean for the Jews? Trump is supported by the KKK (although he says he disavows that support) and the man is a vile misogynist, but Clinton has some virulently anti-Israel advisers who set my teeth on edge and caused many Jews to fear for Israel’s future were she to have been elected — although I think she would have been more pro-Israel than Sanders or Obama. For many Jews there is a very real apprehension that we are facing an existential threat, and many are scared that the Democrats will cease their support of Israel and that the Israelis — who represent six million out of a world Jewish population of about 14 million — will all be murdered in a nuclear Holocaust. Obama’s refusal to even say the word “Islamist” was, to many in the Jewish community, an indication that he does not care what happens to us. When he referred to the Jewish victims of the Hyper Cacher massacre as “a bunch of folks in a deli,” he crossed a line, and while I respect him for many things, I will never forgive him for that.

A poll by GBA Strategies indicated that 25 percent of Jews in America voted for Trump, and the key issues that concerned them were firstly the economy, healthcare, ISIS and terrorism. When asked to indicate their priorities out of 10 issues, concern for Israel came eighth. In Britain, where we don’t have to live with the day to day consequences of a Trump election, many Jews have shown support for Trump — at least among my friends — and the reason has been largely to do with Israel.

For Jews, the Holocaust didn’t end with the Holocaust, because much of the Arab world carried on the hostilities. There were massacres of Jews before the war, for instance the mass-murder of 69 Jews in Hebron in 1929, but after the war, Jews were expelled from their homes all across the Arab world, with around 850,000 refugees thrown out of Libya and Egypt and Iraq and Tunisia and other countries. People lost their property, their businesses, all their savings, their homes. This is something Jews are acutely aware of, but gentiles not so much.

Since the war, we have been murdered in synagogues and community centers and kosher restaurants and delis; in Jewish schools and on the streets and in our homes; there was the murder of the Israelis at the Olympics — and yet even though this terrorism has been going on for decades, the world has been seemingly undismayed by it. Our only safety is in Israel, but Israel is in what appears to Jews as terrible danger. Gentiles are quick to assure us that Israel will be perfectly safe, but to Jews, when we hear Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah threatening to wipe Israel off the map and to kill every last one of us, it doesn’t feel like “posturing.” It feels like dangerous murderers want to kill us, and it feels like the world will stand back and support the murderers when they do, because the West is “anti-war,” and that means refusing to get involved.

Jews who support Trump are not stupid or misogynists; rather, they are like chess players who are looking 10 moves ahead at outcomes that other people are not even imagining. Jews are thinking like this all the time. We have a reputation for neurosis, but I think being fearful is part of what’s kept us alive for over 3,000 years.

About the Author
Rivka Bond is a retired Archaeology Professor living in the UK. She has lived in England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, America and The Netherlands, and has worked on excavations in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Ireland and the UK.
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