A short while ago, I wrote about the Davar Institute in Teaneck and noted jocularly — but only somewhat jocularly — “that a basic qualification of a Davar speaker is that he or she is someone who would not be invited to speak in any of Teaneck’s many Orthodox shuls.”
And in its closing program this season, Davar lived up to this reputation by having Hillel Halkin as its guest for Shabbat.
Halkin is a highly regarded Israeli essayist, novelist, biographer, and literary critic, though probably best known as a translator into English of Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Born into an observant family in Brooklyn but not personally observant since his teens, Halkin went on aliyah in 1970 and self identifies as a secular Zionist. And it was as a secular Zionist that he gave a Friday evening talk to a group of 80 to 100 mainly Orthodox Zionists on Zionism, Jewishness, and Israel, both historically and today. His presentation was, on the one hand, thoughtful, articulate, and scholarly, and on the other, at times provocative and to some, offensive.
Several attendees — not I — felt so offended and uncomfortable by this presentation that they did not return for the Shabbat morning program. In a change of plans, however, Halkin devoted that entire time not to a new lecture but rather to a follow-up no-holds-barred Q&A session. The discussion was spirited, combative at times, and often interesting and educational, even if there was frequent disagreement.
In thinking about that program and speaking to some who did not return on Shabbat morning, I began to consider what it means to be uncomfortable with ideas or their presentation and how best to react to those feelings. And this led me to think about the current much-discussed issue of how unpopular and offensive ideas and speech are handled on college campuses today, including the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces.
But I did more than simply think about it. I spent several hours online reading articles, op-eds, editorials, and blogs discussing and debating this issue. And I came to one very clear and definitive conclusion — boy (or girl), is it complicated!
Interestingly, I found much agreement on some of the broad strokes of the issue; the devil, as is often the case, is in the details.
For example, most agree that in addition to preparing students for their work life after college, other important purposes of a college education are to help them mature, grow personally and intellectually, and learn how to think critically and communicate clearly. And in order to accomplish these goals, students need to be exposed to new disciplines and concepts and challenged by ideas and people they are unfamiliar or strongly disagree with and perhaps even find offensive.
At times, though, some of these goals can clash. For example, while we want students to learn critical thinking, it’s often hard to think critically if you’re being insulted or personally judged and found wanting. So how do you find the proper balance?
One possible answer is a safe space program. But here we run into a definitional problem. Some see safe space as a cocoon where only acceptable speech is allowed and uncomfortable or disagreeable ideas and issues cannot be discussed. Such safe spaces, especially if they extend to the classroom, impinge on the concept of freedom of speech, which, beyond its constitutional mandate with respect to governmental action, is a critical element in the American ethos.
Others, however, see safe space as places where students can let down their guard, places they can visit to recharge themselves, places where they are surrounded by people who understand and do not judge them, places like Hillel or Black Houses, or Catholic or Women’s Centers.
In the first definition, where safe space runs amok, not only are there problems with freedom of speech, but critical thinking is inhibited because students’ beliefs and values aren’t challenged, thus preventing the possibility of their forming new ones. Students may feel safe, but they’re not being educated adequately.
Under the latter definition, however, not only is safe space a small, though perhaps essential, refuge in a large and often intimidating environment, but sometimes the safe feeling engendered there by acceptance and non-judgment may result in the type of conversations that can make college campuses vibrant. As the president of Northwestern University has noted, the most spirited arguments over the viability of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often may take place in a Hillel House, and strong debate over women serving as priests in the Catholic Center.
On the third hand, this latter type of safe space can turn into an echo chamber like Fox News or MSNBC, and most probably there are fourth and fifth hands as well.
As I said, it’s complicated. Very little black and white. Lots and lots of gray.
And there are more questions; many more than easy answers. Who’s allowed to speak on campus? Everyone wants controversial speakers, diverse speakers, speakers who will challenge students’ deeply held ideas and ideals. And almost no respected leader or thinker (as opposed to some students and outside agitators) supports use of the heckler’s veto to drown out or physically bar speakers from presenting their views. (I have more to say about this and other ideas in this column that I’m saving for Part II.)
But there is a but. Are there no exceptions? What about anti-Semites? Nazis? Those who are anti-Muslim or anti-Islam? Holocaust deniers? White nationalists and other racists? BDS supporters? Should they be barred from campuses?
And even if you answer yes about exceptions, which ones? And who fits into what category? Is Milo Yiannopoulos a welcome conservative thinker or an unwelcome white nationalist and agent provocateur? Is Louis Farrakhan a welcome religious and African-American leader or an unwelcome anti-Semite, homophobe, and misogynist? Are Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller welcome fearless advocates of free speech or unwelcome anti-Muslim bigots? Are Linda Sarsour and Omar Barghouti welcome anti-Israel proponents or unwelcome anti-Semites?
Let me quickly note that by “welcome anti-Israel proponents” I don’t mean that I support or welcome anti-Israel advocates in my home or shul. But if we truly mean that part of a college’s job is to challenge its students with difficult, uncomfortable, perhaps even offensive, ideas, that would entail welcoming anti-Israel speakers on campus. Welcoming and then challenging them in an appropriate manner, of course.
I’ve been out of college for more than 50 years, all my kids also have graduated, and my grandkids are still in elementary school or younger. The question of how to deal with this issue on our college campuses therefore is somewhat theoretical for me. But listening to Hillel Halkin at Davar was not. So I wondered why I didn’t follow the example of my non-returning friends, whose opinions and wisdom I have a deep respect for.
And I came up with three reasons. First, while I found some of the substance of what Halkin said offensive, I didn’t feel personally insulted or offended. That well may be a personal failing of mine — perhaps I should have taken it personally. But it is what it is — and I didn’t.
Second, I realized that although I think I’m fairly well educated on Jewish and Israeli matters, I’ve never had a serious opportunity to hear a well-educated, highly articulate, extremely intelligent, and deeply thoughtful secular Zionist tell me directly what he and his community think about issues that are so very important to me. It was about time, and I don’t know whether I’ll have any future such occasions. I therefore grabbed the opportunity to listen, to engage, to re-examine my own views, and in this case, to confirm my position.
And third, while I might not be in college, it’s still important for me to listen to viewpoints that are not my own, and not necessarily to approach the landscape of 2019 and maintain my opinions solely with the backdrop and knowledge that helped me form these opinions so many years ago. As my millennial daughter wisely pointed out to me, digging in one’s heels as a 70-year-old is no better than doing it as a 20-year-old.
I have a lovely home in which to spend a comfortable Shabbat afternoon. I can live with some discomfort in other venues. I know it’s good for my mind, and perhaps even for my soul.