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Shibboleths And Scarlet Letters

Tchaikovsky. Dostoevsky. Gagarin.

Musicians. Athletes. Businesses.

Cancelled.

“Why does everyone hate Russian people?” my daughter’s best friend, a sweet little Russian-Israeli girl, tearfully asked her mother.

As the war rages on, and Ukraine holds out longer and stronger than most everyone (including Putin) expected, the mindless virtue-signaling is reaching new heights – or is it lows? – and blanketing those who “stand with Ukraine” with that warm satisfaction of rooting for the good guys. Even the ringtone app on my phone now opens to a blue and yellow banner proclaiming allegiance to the underdog.

Of course, these startlingly unambiguous assertions of support don’t aid the suffering, bolster the freedom fighters, or place pressure on the invading regime. They do nothing to help those on the ground fighting for their lives. The lip-synchers, after all, put no skin in the game.

But their sloganeering does accomplish something: By cancelling reputations and livelihoods, and the self-image of innocent children, they create millions more victims who are being punished for something over which they have no control. The very kind of discrimination these same wokeists find so abhorrent when the players are different (i.e., closer to home) is suddenly the ticket to the moral high ground.

Most of us are hardly well-versed in the messy history of the region. But it doesn’t take any special knowledge – just a modicum of common sense and compassion – to understand that cancelling borsht and fur hats is not a productive, judicious, or morally sound way of expressing outrage.

There’s another casualty here: freedom of debate and discussion. To ask hard questions about a war does not mean dishonoring the dead or praising the perpetrators. Nothing is ever quite so facile. Still, say something that deviates from the bumper sticker du jour and you may well be redlined, equated with the most cartoonish evil.  Not many are brave enough to take that risk. When voices are frozen out of the public sphere, so is the quest for truth and understanding. (We’ve seen this play out to our mutual detriment in the corona era, another orthodoxy built on cheap mantras and virtue-signaling.)

What has struck me most about the events of the last few weeks is how easy it is for a powerful leader to unleash destruction on a group of people – whether his own or another – and get away with it in full view of the world. I had always wondered how six million Jews could have been murdered without any organized effort, especially on the part of America, to stop the murderers. True, there was no Internet; not everyone knew what was happening. But some did, and they shouted as loud as they could, yet were ignored.

Now I know the answer. Today, one can’t feign ignorance, but all it takes is reciting an easy slogan, hanging a flag, shutting out a neighbor of troubling national background – and voilà, you are golden. And when everyone seems to be doing the same, you can actually fool yourself into believing that things are OK.

America is in the throes of an identity crisis, and its self-defeating government seems incapable of principled action. Israel has immediate existential concerns vis à vis Russia but has managed to play a characteristically outsize role in providing meaningful (albeit non-military) aid to the Ukrainian people. Whether that is enough – and whether it is just – is a matter for legitimate debate, and on which we can all try to make our voices heard.

But none of us can put out the fire over there. And here in Israel, our streets are once again the scene of carnage that demands effective action. So let’s end the charade that catchphrases and cancellations do anything but feed the egos of those who employ them.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., a contributing editor for The Jewish Press, is a writer and editor and the author of two children's books, Kalman's Big Questions and Tzippi Inside/Out. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.
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