Four More Years?

I watched the train wreck that was called a debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden last evening. It was an absolute disgrace. Americans must feel so embarrassed and ashamed of the man that serves as their president. Trump interrupted – not once in awhile, but throughout the first hour of the debate. He talked over Joe. He insulted. He lied – over and over again, repeatedly and aggressively. It was not just watching a bull destroy a china shop, but one with a very sour frown. He never once smiled.

Last evening in the first of three scheduled debates, this one at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Health Center, Joe Biden confronted and clashed with President Donald Trump for election as President of the USA, a vote that was only five weeks away, though in many places, advance voting has already begun. The so-called debate was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. He had excellent questions. However, during most of the debate he lost control to Trump’s bullying. Often Trump turned his tongue lashing on Wallace rather than Biden.

Wallace had divided the debate into six 15-minute segments with 2 minutes allocated to each candidate at the beginning followed by an 11-minute free-flowing discussion in each segment: the economy; the Covid-19 pandemic; race, law and order; the Supreme Court; the candidates’ records and promised programs; the climate; and the integrity of the election. Instead of floating down the river as alternative views were presented, the audience was taken down a rushing river of rapids. Shooting the rapids rather than watching a debate serves as a better description.

The man who occupies the highest office in the land that is America, their commander-in-chief, broke every norm of decorum, decency and civility that I have ever been taught. As the blows kept coming, Biden could not help himself from periodically slipping down to the same level of that angry self-pitying and resentful clown. To call the display akin to two kindergarten children fighting is an insult both to five-year-olds and to Joe Biden who largely allowed the verbal blows to lash across his back. But sometimes, he turned to fight back.

The surprise is that the 48% who believed that Donald Trump would win before the debate only went down to 28% who actually thought he had won. Given the nature of the shit-fest, the expectation that Joe Biden would win only went from 48% or 58% to 60%. I know the audience was somewhat skewed towards Democrats – I assume because many Republicans knew their leader and were too distressed and ashamed to watch such a shameless display from their leader. On every measure imaginable, Joe Biden “won” the “debate”. Though the theatre was stomach churning, it did succeed in putting the stark view of each candidate on display.

There in front of the whole world was the so-called leader of the free world but, at the least, the head of the strongest country in the world, refusing to condemn white supremacists and asking the fascist neo-Nazi Proud Boys to stand back and stand by. For what? For the election he declared would be fraudulent in advance and without any evidence – there is no evidence – because many states, including Republican ones, send out ballots to the all the citizens of their state even when they are not solicited? This was an existing president who could not utter the words that he would concede if he lost.

Why then are so many American Democrats so frightened by the possibility of four more years of a Trump presidency? Should they not be optimistic rather than pessimistic even in the aftermath of polarization that appears unprecedented, when equal rights are at stake and Black lives matter, when the very foundations of democracy – voting – is being trampled upon, and when even a peaceful transfer of power is threatened?

The reasons for optimism are not only the horrors that have accompanied the Trump presidency. Not just the devastating death rates from the COVID-19 pandemic which are among the highest per capita in the world. Nor is it because the economy has tanked in tandem with the pandemic. Nor is it because people have taken to the streets to protest against systemic racism and police killing Blacks. And it is not even the fears that there will not be a peaceful transition. Finally, it is also not because Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) died in September just before the election, and the Republicans proved that they were outright hypocrites when, in the last year of Obama’s term, they opposed appointing anyone to the Supreme Court during the final year of a presidency yet were ready to approve a candidate within two months of an election when a Republican was president.

All of these reasons can be used to add to the pessimism rather than the optimism pile. For support for Trump has not shifted significantly before last night, in spite of all these factors. Yet there would seem to be little reason for anticipations of dread since the evidence is overwhelming that Trump will go down to defeat in the 3 November election. And the evidence is not just recent; it has been reasonably consistent all year. There is only a tiny percentage of voters who remain undecided – perhaps 7%.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, the Biden/Harris team lead the Trump/Pence team by 10 points – 53% to 43%. When Trump was at a peak of popularity in January 2020, up even from three months earlier, Americans saw “Trump as a slight favorite for re-election, with 49 percent expecting him to win and 43 percent predicting that his Democratic challenger would prevail. But those expectations are highly partisan, with 87 percent of Republicans saying they believe Trump will win re-election while a somewhat smaller 78 percent majority of Democrats say they believe their party’s nominee will win.”

That poll was one on optimism and pessimism, not on preferences. Democrats are simply more insecure than Republicans. In January, the Democrats had not chosen their candidate while Trump was merely waiting to be crowned. Even then, before any Democratic candidate had a chance to consolidate his party behind him, Biden held a 4-point lead over Trump, 50 to 46%. A year ago, Biden held a double-digit lead over Trump when Trump’s approval rating was at 38%. Further, just before Democrats and Republicans held their conventions in August, Democrats had a 12-point margin over the Republicans.

What then were the reasons for pessimism? One is that Biden’s lead shrinks as soon as you measure likely versus registered voters. And by a significant drop – 10-points to 6-points. If votes lost to the Green Party are deducted, the margin shrinks further. But even here, Democrats should be cheered by the fact that the Green Party candidate will not be on many state ballots while the Libertarian party candidate will be on all of them. Clearly, a lot will depend on the actual turnout of voters.

But Biden’s lead among various groups of voters seems so great. Women prefer Biden by 65% to 34%, 50% greater than the lead Hilary Clinton held over Trump in this voting sector. After last night’s debacle, that spread will be even greater this morning. Trump’s support comes from male likely voters, but only 55-42%, not enough to make up for Trump’s poor support among women. And Biden now leads in support for voters aged 65+. They were probably most distressed by Trump’s horrific display last evening. Expect Biden to increase his margin among this group even more.

However, Hilary Clinton lost the Electoral College, in spite of a lead of over two million votes in the overall campaign. The real worry is not the popular vote but the vote in tight state races. This time, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are very much in contention, and Biden had a small lead in the latter three before last night, a lead that is now bound to grow. And in another battleground state, Pennsylvania, Biden is already significantly in the lead. So why the pessimism?

The first is the enthusiasm factor. 65% of Trump supporters declare their enthusiasm for their candidate. Only 47% of those who favour Biden are enthusiastic. After last night, is that likely to continue to be the case? I am convinced the enthusiasm will switch. On the other side, 70% of Biden supporters are terrorized about a second Trump victory while only 59% of Trump supporters would consider Biden a disaster. Now I believe even more Democrats will be terrified of a Trump victory and a majority of Republicans may now be even more frightened of the anticipated outcome – both that Biden is likely to win and, God-forbid, Trump could possibly win and embarrass them and threaten democracy for four more years. The problem is not simply which candidate is favoured but the enthusiasm behind their favoured candidate. Joe Biden’s most effective moment was when he stared directly into the camera and asked Americans to vote. Vote early. Vote in any manner you choose that is available and with which you are comfortable. But Vote. Vote. Vote.

None of this takes into consideration that the polls still depend on telephone surveys while young people more often communicate by text messaging and other uses of social media. It is believed that polls are still not accurate enough. If they favoured Clinton in 2016, surely they would favour Biden in 2020. Given that qualification. Biden’s lead should be discounted further. Add these other factors;

  • Approval of economic performance is going up, not down, and has reached 40%, an almost 25% improvement; there is an insignificant lead by Biden on the economy
  • 40% approve of how Trump handled the pandemic; given Trump’s horrific record, only 53% yesterday believed that Biden would have done a better job
  • The support for peaceful protests compared to support for a law and order candidate is about even
  • Up until last evening, Trump had a 6-point lead among White voters, offset by the enormous lead Biden has among Black voters, but the latter are a much smaller proportion of the population.

However, Trump’s support among White voters has been dropping significantly, particularly among White women. Biden yesterday was supported equally by White women without college degrees and today surely has a majority of their support. (Hilary had a 23-point deficit here.) Biden has already also increased his lead among all college-educated voters. Further, he now will certainly hold majority support among voters over 65, a reversal of 2016, and older citizens vote in higher percentages. Biden even lead among suburban men before Trump tanked last night.

The bottom line is that: a) turnout is very important, especially given the coordinated effort among Republicans to suppress the vote; b) voting splits in key states in contention is critical; c) given the confidence in 2016, the shift to pessimism is justified as a tactic to ensure Democratic supporters turn out. After last night, the worries that Biden might stumble in the debates that might be devastating to his support can be put to rest.

May the best man win. Surely there can no longer be any doubt on that score; the (far) better man will win.

Cancel Culture Cases and Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is not a prayer. It makes no requests. It is not even addressed to God. Kol Nidrei is a juristic declaration in Aramaic even before prayers in Hebrew are offered.

This mournful tune, probably the most recognizable one in Judaism, expresses regret for inadvertent assertions or vows during the course of the ensuing year that may hurt another or create false expectations. More significantly, it proactively annuls unintended propositions or generalized imperatives that may be uttered during the coming year. One explanation for its origin is that, in oppressive societies, Jews might be induced to say something, including making a promise that they did not mean. Rather than being pressured into silence, a Jew might affirm something to satisfy demands for conformity when they believe the opposite.

But the assertion could have been inadvertent and not simply defensive. In fact, this was more likely the most frequent situation that gave rise to the need to retract. The key importance is that the person making the inadvertent statement or vow was given the opportunity to clarify or retract what was said, to do so in public and earn forgiveness. It is a process that runs directly contrary to the practice of shaming in cancel culture.

The point is that people should not be canceled. Only an assertion or a promise or an oath or an imposed restriction should be canceled or retracted. Clarification and retraction are at the core of the most sacred moment in the Jewish year, not punishment and certainly not shame or banishment.

The wording of Kol Nidrei (“all vows”) is a retraction in advance, with the consent of God and the congregation, in a convocation of both a heavenly and earthly court that grants permission “to pray with transgressors.” When it comes to confessions of sins, the sinned against and the sinner pray together. Instead of accusations, we have empathy. Instead of judgment we find forgiveness.

We retract, we cancel, we annul both all vows and everything we have imposed on ourselves as forbidden. We are freed up, not to claim the truth of what is said nor to make it into a categorical imperative, but to both regret having said what we said or will say while, at the same time, giving permission to say even stupid things. “We regret having made them and may all be permitted.” However, when recognized for what these assertions are, they must be “forgiven, eradicated and nullified.”  They must be cancelled and exist no longer. “Forgive the entire congregation of the children of Israel and the stranger amongst them for the entire people sin unintentionally.” Greatness is best found in lovingkindness.

Trumpists use identity politics to harass liberal identities rooted in tolerance, secularism and freedom. They posit, at the extreme, battered Whites as victims whose identities are threatened. On the other hand, progressives use identity politics to limit discussion and reinforce moral stands against an allegedly oppressive order. The first sets up liberalism as the enemy. The second undermines liberalism from the inside.

In every case, shouting and insults replace discussion and dialogue as the search goes out to punish the one who is accused of inflicting pain. As Shane Phelan wrote in his 1989 book that introduced “identity politics” into political discourse, “non-negotiable identities will enslave us whether they are imposed from within or without.” Social circumstances do not determine who we are; they just create limitations and challenges. If we accept the identities thrust upon us as absolute determinants, we close ourselves off from new possibilities. I shall be he who I shall be and not simply who you say I am.

Though there are many variations, and though context and nuance are crucial in understanding individual cases, the following general characteristics are associated with cancel culture:

  • Rising intolerance and public shaming by mobs utilizing social media
  • Censoriousness and black and white thought applied to others
  • Twitter, as an example, incentivises emotion rather than cognitive analysis
  • Expression consists of outrage and vitriol
  • The negative emphasis is on ruining reputation and removing respect in the name of restoring respect
  • The core is judgement of others
  • Further, the more an Other is called out, the more “woke” you are
  • Social media democratizes what is acceptable to say and do, constricting behaviour
  • Those who defend traditional liberal values of tolerance and dialogue are allegedly simply defending the power of their own voices.

I have given one example of an attack on liberalism from the outside, from Donald Trump. In a speech he gave on 4 July 2020 at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, he attacked liberals by merging them with those utilizing cancel culture and depicted the latter as a “political weapon – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”

Three days later, a letter in Harper’s Magazine signed by 153 academics, public intellectuals, journalists and celebrity artists (Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell) also denounced cancel culture, but from a liberal perspective. Cancel culture was “progressive illiberalism” or “progressive intolerance” attacking free speech, open debate, and respect for opinions with which you disagree as excuses for tolerating the intolerable.

No sooner was the letter published in Harper’s than it was subjected to outraged voices denouncing the preciousness of these writers defending their positions of power and influence. The core critique: who gets to be objective and who does not is a function of power. See, for example, Steven Pinker’s article in The Guardian and Assistant Editors Nari Cohen and Joshua Leifer of Dissent who attacked some of the signatories for defending free speech in the abstract but suppressing speech in favour of Palestinian rights.

There are many more cases illustrating how cancel culture works to punish those perceived to be out of line:

  • The resignation of James Bennett at the New York Times
  • The resignation of Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine
  • The resignation of Bari Weiss, a signatory to the Harper’s letter, from the New York Times
  • Opposing BDS (as another signatory, Cary Nelson, author of Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State (2019), did) was also interpreted as being hypocritical in denying free speech to Palestinians.

The more common cases are not these high-profile ideological instances, but those who inadvertently or casually say something that is either mistaken or can be taken as insulting and even racist. Others viciously attack the individual who voiced the thought. In addition to the example I used to open this blog, there is the more widely known case of Chris Cooper who asked Amy Cooper (no relation) to keep her dog on a leash in Central Park in New York. She called police to accuse Chris of harassment, of being a Black who threatened her. Chris videotaped the whole incident on his cell phone.

When the whole story came out, and not just the initial accusation, Amy Cooper was fired from her job in an investment firm. Cancel culture easily creates the actions and reactions of a ball in a pinball machine that tallies how much hurt can be delivered to either party. It is worth noting that Chris Cooper did not want or expect Amy to suffer such dire consequences for her inappropriate behaviour.

More locally, in the college in which I am a Senior Fellow, Massey College at the University of Toronto, there are the cases of Professor Michael Marrus and Margaret Wente, the journalist. Marrus was “cancelled” as a Senor Fellow having an office in the college for making a bad joke misinterpreted as racist. Wente’s nomination to the Quadrangle Society was cancelled because of some of her controversial columns.

Let me conclude with a tale, a personal one, not of cancel culture in the university, but of liberal tolerance and respect for differences that characterized the university in which I was educated and the institution in which I dedicated my life’s work.  When I was in second year of my premedical studies, my English professor was an authority on T.S. Eliot. I wrote an essay for him based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly The Waste Land, as well as on his many essays on literary theory.

I offered three arguments. According to T.S.Eliot’s own criteria of communication with respect to poetry as set out in his own essays, he was not a real poet, at least not in The Waste Land, but a very ingenious wordsmith and clever craftsman. Further, he was explicitly an anti-Semite. Third, the antisemitism and the character of his poetry were intimately connected.

Many works on Eliot have noted his antisemitism since, and probably even before, I wrote my essay. T.S. Eliot and Prejudice by Christopher Ricks (1989) and T.S.Eliot and Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius (1995) are examples. Some academics, like Hugh Haughton at the University of York (I taught philosophy at York University in Toronto and not the University of York in Great Britain), seem to want to lift the burden of antisemitism from Eliot’s shoulders by placing his views within the historical and social context of the time.

Others claim that the antisemitism characterized his early poetry but is absent in The Waste Land. (See Robert Siegel’s essay, “Smashing Idols, Then and Now,” in Moment (21 September 2020) where he interviewed Anthony Julius). “The anti-Semitic poems actually come from a relatively brief period in his literary life that precedes the writing of his masterpiece, The Waste Land. It’s not that I think Eliot became a liberal by the time he wrote The Waste Land. Rather, I think that he exhausted the resource that anti-Semitic language represented for him in the writing of poetry, and so he moved on.” I did not believe Eliot neglected his antisemitism in his later work nor accepted that his antisemitism could be partially exculpated because it expressed a dominant strain of thought at the time.

Benjamin Ivry in his essay, “Again, Off-Again Anti-Semitism” in Forward (16 September 2011) wrote, “Ricks and Julius cogently explained the details of how some early Eliot poems have unappealing images of Jews. ‘Gerontion’ recasts the stereotype of Jew as slumlord: ‘My house is a decayed house, / And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner.’ ‘Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar’ is an evocation of Venice that seems to refer to Shakespeare’s Shylock: ‘On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.’ And in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’: ‘Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.’” According to Ricks and Julius, underlying these images was Eliot’s admiration for the French fascist and anti-Semitic author Charles Maurras. I had used Eliot’s 1934 essay, “After Strange Gods” where he emphasized the importance of religious unity rooted in race. “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

See British-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff’s discussion of Eliot’s antisemitism (https://forward.com/culture/books/142722/ts-eliots-on-again-off-again-anti-semitism/) who noted that Eliot had friends who were Jewish and published Jewish writers in his journal. He called them, “nice Jews,” “free-thinking Jews.” Yet Eliot also wrote: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.”

However, this is no place to even offer a superficial analysis of T.S.Eliot’s antisemitism. I merely offer a taste. The point I want to make is that my professor, a deep scholar and lover of T.S.Eliot’s poetry, awarded me an A+ for my essay. He clearly did not agree with my thesis. But that was not the point. The issue was whether, as an undergraduate, I had adequately defended the position I had taken in accordance with academic norms. It is this tolerance that I celebrate in the life of the university, a tolerance for diverse views and respect for other positions.

According to cancel culture, should T.S. Eliot not be excised from the curriculum? I, of course, would argue very strongly against such a move. But did Eliot’s poetry not make me uncomfortable? It certainly did. But it challenged me much more to explore and understand Eliot, to understand the nature of poetry and of communication. It did not stir up in me a desire to shame or humiliate Eliot – as if I ever could. It did not inspire me to engage in censoriousness black and white thinking. Nor did my professor at the time defend traditional liberal values of tolerance and dialogue by defending the power of his much greater expertise. Instead, he respected my voice and the way in which I had articulated my views. Censure is not the same as censor. The Kol Nidrei prayer commits me each year to engaging with others with whom I strongly disagree in a respectful manner whenever possible.

I do not share the position of those who insist that, “the loud protests of those who decry ‘cancel culture’ show that free speech is very much alive and well,” and that, “The principal critics of this activism are the privileged elites who, while claiming to be defending free speech, can’t tolerate criticism of their own cherished views.” Unfortunately, “Times are changing.” The defenders of cancel culture argue that, “Liberals need to recognize that their ideology is tired, and that it is being supplanted by a new one, which gives its followers a moral purpose, a sense of solidarity, and the hope of achieving genuine social change.” Instead, I argue for critical but sceptical engagement and using your moral framework, not to cancel the Other, but, rather, to engage in a conversation.

However, beware. The tyranny of the mob is all around us. 

On Sacrifice, the Abraham Accords and Trump Rallies

Deuteronomy 24:16 reads:

טז  לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת:  אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.  {ס}16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin. 

Children shall not be put to death for fathers, and, therefore, by fathers. Yet in Genesis 22, God called Abraham, who replied, “Here I am.” Then God ordered Abraham to:


ב   קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
2 “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering (my italics) upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’

Isaac is not just a son; he is a son much loved by his father. Why did God give Abraham such an order? The text is clear; to test him. But for what? When Abraham picks up the knife to slay his son, an angel of the Lord, not God Himself, called out to him: “Abraham, Abraham.” This time the father’s name is repeated twice, possibly to make sure the angel got Abraham’s attention. Why did God not retract His order Himself? Why did He use an agent? Abraham gave exactly the same reply as he did when he was called the first time. “Here I am.” I am here to do whatever I am asked. Here I am.

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי.12 And he [the angel] said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’

Presumably, this was the test. Abraham proved that his devotion was so great that he would not withhold even his son as an offering to God. But is this the correct or the best interpretation of the Akeidah story? One justification for God’s action is that child sacrifice is clearly of a different order than sacrificing a ram. God, through His agent, in calling it off, and, in so doing, is, in reality, condemning child sacrifice. After all, Leviticus 18:21 reads: “You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” However, it says do not sacrifice your child to Molech – other passages say to Baal. They do not command that your child not be sacrificed to God. In fact, God repeatedly insists that the first of your children belongs to God.

Deuteronomy, as put forth in the opening paragraph, seems somewhat different. There, as in Deuteronomy 18:10, sacrificing your own child for any reason seems to be condemned. “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer.” In fact, the wrath of God would be delivered upon Israel if a father offered his son as a sacrifice. “Then he took his oldest son, who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.” (2 Kings 3:27) Sacrificing your son was an abomination of other nations. Sacrificing your son to God was an abominable act. (Deuteronomy 12:31) When you cause your child to pass through the fire, you defile yourself. (Ezekiel 20:31)

Yet in Christianity, God purportedly sacrifices His only son to save mankind. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Is not what is good enough for God, good enough for humans? Should not humans be willing to sacrifice their children for a higher purpose?

There is another interpretation of the Akeidah story. In Genesis, child sacrifice is not forbidden. Ritual sacrifice of children was part of early Judaism. Abraham got off the hook because he showed such great fidelity to God. But others possibly did not. It was only in mature Judaism that child sacrifice was banned only to be inverted in Christianity and ascribed as the highest expression of God’s faith in humanity when God sacrificed His son. Further, in some interpretations, God Himself is identified as Molech.

Let me offer a final interpretation – though there are others. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a contrast with what he actually did to Ishmael, his oldest son, the child of Hagar, when Sarah demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be expelled. Then Abraham resisted at first until God sided with Sarah, but then once again gave a reprieve by offering water when Hagar and Ishmael were on the verge of dying of thirst in the wilderness.

I do not want to enter a debate about these or other interpretations that focus on the morality of sacrifice. Instead, I want to concentrate on the phenomenology of sacrifice first by examining the various ways sacrifice is applied to the Israel–United Arab Emirates normalization agreement and the Israel-Bahrain normalization agreement. Formally, they are known as the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel and, with respect to Bahrain, the Abraham Accords: Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations.  

What has been most noted about both agreements, even more than the contents about ending boycotts, formal recognition of Israel, establishing normal diplomatic relations and working together on technological, financial, agricultural, health and trade relations, is the sacrifice of the Palestinians. They were not party to either agreement. Though lip service was paid to a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, it was literally lip service. Even in the UAE-Israel Agreement, there was no mention of a suspension of annexation and for how many years.

Palestinians denounced the agreements even though the prospect of annexation was suspended for an estimated four years. Israel was rewarded, according to Palestinian critics, for expelling Palestinians from their land, destroying their lives and livelihoods and denying them the possibility of self-determination. Further, the two states together held fewer Arabs than those in the Gaza Strip. However, instead of the “Day of Rage” that Abbas called for in the West Bank, it became a day of weeping and an oppressive widespread feeling that once again the Palestinians had been thrown under the bus to serve the transactional and security interests of others.

However, this account bears no comparison to the Akeidah story. God did not order the sacrifice of the Palestinians. The sacrifice was definitely not for God – unless Trump=God. The offering was the Palestinians and they were definitely not the sons of Israel. Further, no scapegoat was introduced; Palestinians were shoved aside at the very least, though the peacemakers argued that they were not sacrificed.  In fact, many argued, they were given a real chance for self-determination in a meaningful geographical region because annexation had been postponed.

However, if annexation was not a real possibility, then it was not really surrendered and was not even made part of either agreement. More importantly, the Palestinians were not willing sacrificial lambs. This is a significant contrast with Isaac and more akin to what happened to Ishmael. For some, the name “Abraham Accords” was used to create an illusion of an Arab-Jewish alliance, but one without any depth and only a matter of mutual convenience. The real comparison is to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

However, could the Palestinians not be accused of willingly offering themselves as sacrificial lambs in their past refusal to re-enter peace negotiations, their unwillingness to thank the UAE for getting annexation suspended, and their fabulist hopes that the EU and/or the Third World would still salvage their position? They might be the ones sacrificed, but it was not the UAE or Bahrain who agreed to make the sacrifice. The Palestinians were pierced on their own petard. Thus, the fundamental essence of sacrifice – that it is an offering of oneself – makes it a suitable case.

I suggest that the key common elements of the Akeidah story are the following:

  • Isaac is a willing victim, seemingly indifferent to what is to happen to him
  • Abraham is a willing sacrificer, in fact, a robotic tool of God
  • A third party commands the action
  • A fourth party is left to rescind the demand, but that does not redeem Isaac
  • Isaac never sighs with relief let alone breaks out in laughter as his name would imply.

Lest this phenomenological approach to the Akeidah story appear to be way out in left field, let me offer the conclusion of an interpretation of a third case of sacrifice, one depicted by Ivan Strenski, Distinguished Professor (Emeritus), Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside.

Understood as civic sacrifice, I argue that the most coherent interpretation of Henderson, NV Trump rally as sacrifice is that the assembled devotees of the president were willingly sacrificing their own health and physical welfare for the benefit of enhancing the status of the president. I reach this conclusion on the basis of the facts that

  1. The assembled voluntarily ‘gave up’ the goods of their own future health prospects for the benefit of the president’s political purposes.
  2. In this sense, the assembly, not the president, was agent of sacrifice – the sacrifier. The crowd was a self-destructive victim of its own attitudes and inclinations.
  3. The assembled had not, therefore, been victimized by an external agency, but rather they themselves were willing sacrifices of their own health and welfare, made in the belief that the object of their devotion, their sacrifice – the president – would benefit thereby.

Does this also explain why Trump organizes these rallies? He deeply and truly loves his followers, even though he does not care about them or for them. For he loves them as followers. Further, the rallies are both tests and expressions of blind and passive belief.

Note the following additional points:

  • This is a case of extreme sacrifice because the Trumpers are voluntarily offering themselves as possible victims of a vicious virus in ignoring wearing masks and distancing;
  • It is possible to offer oneself and to be offered as a sacrifice by Trump (in contrast to Ivan’s view); just because the potential victims offer themselves willingly does not mean that Trump is not a sacrificer;
  • Further, Trump is both the sacrificer and the beneficiary of the willingness to be sacrificed;
  • Sacrifice is also possible without the sacrifice actually taking place – perhaps none of the participants at the Trump rally ended up with COVID-19;
  • Trump offers no redemption himself;
  • If there is relief from the consequences, ironically it comes ‘by grace of God’;
  • Trump is not God, whatever he may think of himself.

The moral of the tale: the lives of children should not be put at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Children should not willingly put themselves at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Sacrifice yourself at your own cost and for the benefit of another.

Shana Tova

The Enemy on the Other Side: Cancel Culture

In the United States with the best post-secondary education system in the world, the university is under attack by a reactionary aspiring fascist executive branch of government claiming colleges are bastions of liberalism and progressivism. The criticism focuses on the issue of identity politics, in particular, the issue of systemic racism. (See my last blog.) The drama may have been put into play on the same day Donald Trump gave his Mount Rushmore speech attacking cancel culture (see below) when hundreds of faculty members and staff at Princeton University sent a group letter to the President demanding radical changes to uproot systemic racism. The Administration agreed to the request.

In answer to the university administration response, the government initiated a probe of the university. The investigation was not to see how diversity policies impact on systemic racism. Rather, the government claimed that, since universities attest to being non-racist in their applications for research funds, they cannot admit to systemic racism. Presumably, they contradict themselves. On the surface, the government suggests, the university might not be entitled to such funds. However, it is readily apparent from the documents requested, the prospective interviews and the timelines that the purpose of the inquiry is to harass the university while advancing the proposition that an organization cannot confess to or even inquire into systemic racism at the same time as it professes to conform to anti-racist laws. The government, of course, denies that systemic racism exists.

Except possibly against Whites. Except possibly against men. Sometimes conservatives become defenders against the assaults of cancel culture and not just deniers of racism or sexism. For example, Donald Trump is contemplating appointing Amy Coney Barrett (ACB), a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, to the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court recently vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). ACB led a three-woman panel of judges that concluded, because of a failure to provide due process, that Purdue University may have abridged the rights of a male student accused of sexual assault when he was suspended for a year. ACB wrote that, “It is plausible that [university officials] chose to believe Jane because she is a woman and to disbelieve John because he is a man.”

At the extreme, the university is being undermined by postmodernists and others who deny the possibility of objective knowledge and insist all knowledge is about power. (See the blog before the last.) They too centre their argument on the depth of systemic racism or sexism in the university. The question is whether, in the efforts to attack systemic racism and sexism, rights of due process are being violated. Further, racism and sexism may be interpreted so broadly that adverse discrimination is imposed on Whites and males. After all, with respect to the latter, “President Barack Obama’s Education Department warned schools that they risked losing federal funding if they did not adequately prioritize sexual assault complaints. (Washington Post, 20 September 2020) In response, Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, “bristled at the prospect of “replacing someone like that (RBG) with a judge (ACB) who is eager to use the language of sex discrimination in order to defend the status quo, and to use the statutes that were created to forward gender equality as swords against that very purpose.”

There are cases where universities go much further. Richard Landes and Jonathan Hoffman in their coverage of the Lamonby Case at Solent University in the U.K, claimed in Tablet (15 September 2020) that, “the Stephen Lamonby case stands out for its bizarre accusations, high level of documentation, gratuitously humiliating treatment, and appalling judicial procedures. Few cases of politically motivated public shaming lend such insight into the way the new, merciless, woke orthodoxy has dug its talons into both academia and judicial systems.” 

This Stephen Lamonby is not the author if Children of Men or GoldenEye. Stephen Lamonby, 73, is an engineer, a special effects designer for films (see Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) and was a part-time lecturer at the university in Southampton. He was born a Catholic and became fascinated by the role Jews played in the evolution of physics. He was also very supportive of disadvantaged students, in particular, two from Africa and one from Lithuania, who came from “environmentally disadvantaged backgrounds” due to growing up without any exposure to engineering. For him, the two African students were products of systemic racism, though he did not use the phrase in his discussion with his supervisor. She indicated that she was a physicist. He became excited, given his interests, since Jews make up 0.2% of the world population but have won half of the Nobel Prizes in physics. Lamonby asked if she (his supervisor) was Jewish.

The “shit hit the fan.” Jan Bonar – his supervisor or line manager in the university administrative hierarchy – loudly and publicly attacked Lamonby “for his abhorrent, racist remarks” even though she was not herself Jewish. “Bonar stormed out of the cafeteria, shouting imprecations about his racism, shoving chairs in her haste.” Though in his emails he reiterated his concern about the disadvantages Black students had as well as his admiration for the “cleverness of Jews,” Bonar claimed that he had said that the Black students “didn’t have the heritage in their DNA to be able to do engineering.” As far as she was concerned, Lamonby was a racist.

The DNA comment was not supported by evidence and was subsequently withdrawn. Nor was there any effort to check whether Lamonby had discriminated against any of the students that he taught. There was no due process. Lamonby was suspended.

Paul Marchbank, dean in the School of Media Arts and Technology, was asked to investigate and “concluded that Lamonby “holds values counter to the University which presents a risk to the University, undermines the Solent Values of respect and inclusivity, has caused offence to a colleague and has the potential to adversely affect the student experience.” Holding the view that Jews may be exceptionally clever, that many Black students are disadvantaged, evidently runs counter to the University’s values of respect and inclusivity. Lamonby had to be excluded. Besides, he had offended a colleague. Lamonby was never given a chance to question Bonar or to meet in a mediation session. Lamonby was dismissed and the dismissal was upheld on appeal, first by the Board of the university and then in a court of law by Judge C.H. O’Rourke.

Group generalizations were defined as racist, whether positively about Jews or negatively about the handicaps that Black students have to overcome. As the judge wrote: “generalisations about ‘young black males’, rather than referring to individuals… and stereotypical comments, based on race [sic] and nationality (with respect to the cleverness of Jews who study Physics)..have no place in modern society, or in the Respondent’s multicultural institution.”

This was a clear case of cancel culture in operation. There was no proper due process. Lamonby was dismissed and humiliated rather than found guilty of a crime. The adjudicators opposed so-called racist generalizations, even though Lamonby’s generalizations were all about culture. Further, the opposition to Lamonby’s beliefs was based on generalizations about acceptable comments in a multicultural institution in modern society, i.e. culture. What counts is not the evidential basis of the comments, but how they might be experienced by the supposedly offended parties. There was no examination of how the comments were actually received by the purported victims.

What was unintended is considered deliberate. Possible emotional subjective reactions counted and there was no attempt to gather objective evidence of pain and hurt. Victimization is asserted without any analysis. Moral indignation is the real proof. As the judge wrote, “Dr Bonar had been very upset at his comments, so, again, there was no need to test the fact of that reaction at the disciplinary hearing.” There was never any effort to empathize with Lamonby or become concerned about his hurt and pain.

As the authors of the article concluded, “This ‘insidious and potentially authoritarian character of cancel culture,’ imposed through moral panic and public shaming, reinforced by ‘woke’ administrators and judges, causes damage large and small to a civil society and above all to academia, entities that can only survive and thrive if their public discussion is based on accurate knowledge, clear thinking, and fairness to all.”

The incident above took place in Great Britain. But North America is awash with examples. Laurent Dubreuil wrote an article for Harper’s September issue entitled, “Nonconforming: Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics.” In it, he argued that, “The collection of presumed tastes, behaviors, desires, aspirations, and appearances that come with an externally defined identity rejects in advance anyone who doesn’t conform. “Intersectionality”—or bearing several identities simultaneously—does not change this conundrum; it simply adds additional prescriptions.”

American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming. The slightest shared characteristic, once anchored in a narrative of pain, can give rise to a new group. There is now a rural identity, a peanut-allergic identity, a fat identity, an ADHD identity, and so on. Each comes with stories of humiliation or of life-threatening experiences, with demands for official recognition, with products specifically targeted to the group, and with the sort of people the writer Touré called, in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, “the self-appointed identity cops.”

Identity politics thrives on creating and recognizing classes of oppressed and academic institutions are seduced into liberating the group-of-the-week from oppression by multiplying restrictions. It is one thing to invent and characterize classes, such as dividing the population into generations – the Boomers, Gen-X, the Millennials, Gen-Z – and it is another to insist that if you are born between 1981 and 1996 you are a Millennial and, therefore, must have the following characteristics attributed to the general category. The first step is useful. The last is both illogical, limiting and insulting to individuals. Everyone should have the right to be and to be described by their individual characteristics which may or may not overlap with those generalized about one’s generation.

More importantly, these sorts of identity are often used to either brand or to honour groups as victims, as products of trauma and, hence, requiring additional attention and benefits. But this step can also lead to exploitation, adding an additional layer of oppression. It is one thing to give extra help to a student who comes from a poor district; it is another to brand students as having been accepted into a program only because they belonged to a disadvantaged group. Identity generalizations can be useful and do not in themselves amount to racism or sexism or agism. But stretching the generalizations into causal determinations creates a very dangerous path.

The blog on the documentary, The Social Dilemma, discussed the use of tractable algorithms to use social media to divide humanity into tranches, brand them and then set in automatic techniques to reinforce the brand through habituation. Hence, identity politics has become a mode of marketing made easier by reinforcement – like or dislike. The I is made into a we of a specific type. And the failure to resemble a type that is self-chosen is a source of humiliation. To prevent “hurt,” words are prescribed, songs are denounced, and statements are often decontextualized at the cost of creating more victimization. We are inclined to shut up lest we utter something that another interprets as hurtful. And we become silent partners in suppressing honest dialogue. According to sociologists, dissent, at least public dissent from the conventional thinking of a time, has become a practice of a small minority. Conformity, even silence, has emerged as the order of the day.

How can an academic teach properly in such an environment? How can he or she challenge accepted opinion and touch a student’s fears and desires without being charged with inflicting pain? How do we deal with songs and books and works of art branded as offensive without retreating to a defensive posture of resistance and considering that for some – for women, for Jews, for Blacks – they may be experienced as offensive. But does that mean this material should be banned, that those using it should be cancelled in order to protect the sensitivities of those who feel hurt? Or should the possibility that they do inflict pain simply become part of the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the work?

Though there are plenty of outstanding cases, such as the one of Steve Lamonby summarized above, most “formal complaints of this sort rarely have spectacular consequences, though the anxiety of being called out, the stress of public shaming, even over frivolous grievances, at best wastes one’s time and at worst leaves a permanent stain on one’s reputation. But I do not believe that the goal is actually the removal of professors. The objective is to reach a system of self-censorship that would bind everyone in the room, eroding academic freedom. If the choice of our words, ideas, positions, and texts is conditioned by volatile mobs, if entire sets of questions are now off-limits in our classrooms, books, or labs, then we will no longer have the capacity to create or contest.”

Culture Wars and the University

Civil wars, as in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century in England, are often fought simply for power. One group has it. The other group wants it based on grievances against those who hold the power. When the institutions are lacking or, at the very least weakened, that adjudicate power conflicts, civil wars often result.

But some civil wars are as much about ideology as power. Just over a century and a half after the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War broke out in the seventeenth century. This time the war was not between and among members of the same class, the landed nobility, but between the rising commercial classes (merchants, traders, manufacturers) versus the nobility. Ideology was used in the service of the rebels against the aristocracy to enable the new rising class to breach the oppressive grip of the feudal order that was strangling the “upstarts.”

The upstarts claimed to be the authentic democrats. The resistors in power claimed the loyalty of the ordinary people in opposition. Did the ordinary folk side with the Democrats or with the ruling economic elite who purportedly represented custom and tradition? In the English Civil War, “When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be ‘downright separatists,’ the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The ‘gathered Churches’ of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the ‘gathered Churches’ would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.” (C. V. Wedgewood, The King’s War, 1641-1647, 481)

Currently, growing speculation in the United States suggests that if Donald Trump wins a second term or if he refuses to give up his elected throne if he is defeated, there is a danger of civil war in the United States with both the North-East and the Western states attempting to secede from a system that inherently favours Red States over Blue States given the structure of the Senate and the way the Electoral College works.

A symbolic civil war precedes the ideological one in what is dubbed as “The New History Wars.” (Cf. Jeremy Adelman, Director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, and Andrew Thompson, Co-Director, Global History Centre, University of Oxford, “The New History Wars,” Project Syndicate, 22 September 2020.) It is a war over public monuments to imperialists and slave owners fought between the heirs of the victimization and those unwilling to allow the pillars of their sense of identity become a source of shame. (https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/new-history-wars-public-monuments-statues-by-jeremy-adelman-and-andrew-thompson-1-2020-09

As in England, the crisis erupted initially in the centres where the priesthood is located and educated. In our current age, that is the universities which spew out the priests for our contemporary society, especially now that the universities have increasingly fallen under the control of a new moral order. (See my last blog.) The universities are the locales where the degeneration and disintegration first take place, for that is where society’s priesthood is trained. For universities are not just the guardians and reproducers of skills and symbols needed by society. They are also the locales where the sacredness of the core values receive their recognition.

Trump has already declared war on the universities claiming that they are dominated by leftist doctrinaires who seek to deconstruct the American political system, its values and the lofty principles of the founding fathers. Those insisting that American society is riddled with structural racism will soon be countered by Trump’s 1776 National Commission to “promote a curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” most basically that the nation was founded on the principles of freedom, not oppression.

The Commission will celebrate patriotic norms rather than radical egalitarianism. “Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country. American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at work or the repression of traditional faith, culture and values in the public square. Not anymore,” claimed Trump. The educational elites have betrayed America, not Donald Trump who arguably had another write his exams and even his essays.

Criticism of existing institutions, criticisms of the police, criticisms of America’s core beliefs are all unpatriotic. America is a beacon of freedom and democracy, and a moral leader and not a racist and oppressive system. “What we’re witnessing today is a result of left-wing indoctrination in our nation’s schools and universities. Many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism.” America was founded on liberty, not on racism. Trump had already declared war on the federal bureaucracy banning racial sensitivity training in the name of American exceptionalism.

It is ironic when those in power, those with great wealth, present themselves as aggrieved and appeal to White fears and insecurity. The war against the liberal university is a real one. Just last week, the federal education department sent a letter to Princeton University announcing an investigation of the institution, more specifically the “systemic racism” of the university that runs contrary to the anti-racism laws of the United States. The argument of structural racism is being turned against the universities themselves, not to establish that they are racist, but really to harass them and tie them up so that the members are not free to work for liberal and progressive candidates.

Robert King, Assistant Secretary, Office of Postsecondary Education, using adminfare to tie universities in knots, sent a letter to Christopher L. Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, dated 16 September 2020. (https://www.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/documents/2020/09/Princeton-Letter-9-16-20-Signed.pdf) The university Diversity Office two weeks earlier had launched a program of scholarly and operational initiatives to counteract racism.  (https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/09/02/update-and-overview-princeton-universitys-ongoing-efforts-combat-systemic-racism)

The federal government letter made the following points:

  • Since 2013, the university had received $75 million of taxpayer funds (presumably for research undertaken by scholars and scientists at the university) and certified that the university was in compliance with the Civil

Rights Act of 1964;

  • Title VI provides no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance;
  • The university has also made equal non-discriminatory and opportunity representations to students, parents and consumers;
  • The university’s own letter of 2 September claimed the university had been racist;
  • Logically, that meant that the university was not in compliance with Title IV or with laws requiring honest advertising.

Of course, the logic is absurd. It is possible to be non-discriminatory in policies yet have continuing discriminatory practices.  

The federal government also attacked the new initiative to explore ways to extend Princeton’s teaching to a new range of students disproportionately affected by systemic racism and that, because of racism, race-based diversity measures would be utilized in hiring, procurement and teaching. This, in itself, was now regarded by the government as racist since the policy favoured some races over others.

Given that the university had admitted to racism, its applications for funds may have been false and were knowingly false at the time. The university also had engaged in misleading advertising. Such a claim would have no merit. The illogic was too evident. However, on the basis of such a charge, the university was asked to deliver to the department reams of documents and personnel to answer questions under oath. “Princeton should provide requested records, make available the identified Princeton personnel for transcribed interviews under oath, and answer the specified questions in accordance with the deadlines specified below.” Princeton should also “make every effort to answer our requests fully and completely”

The letter warned that the government could and would request repayment of funds if indeed the university was deemed in non-compliance with Title IV and with provisions of false and misleading advertising. “(T)he serious, even shocking nature of Princeton’s admissions compel the Department to move with all appropriate speed.” The university was given 21 calendar [not work] days – i.e. 15 work days (excluding in my list the elaboration of a request) – to supply the following:

  • Each record that you identified, referred to, described, relied upon, reviewed, or used in any way in preparing your written response. Please also identify and describe in detail each such record;
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the President’s Letter from 1 April 2020 to the present;
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the Diversity Measures;
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s “systemic” and/or “embedded” racism from January 1, 2013 to the present;
  • A spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or “damage” referenced in the President’s Letter from January 1, 2015 to the present;
  • All records concerning or relating to Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity representations to the Department, to other federal government departments, agencies, or instrumentalities, or to the public from January 1, 2015 to the present;
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s promise in its Program Participation Agreements with the Department of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and the implementing regulations from January 1, 2015 to the present;
  • All records Princeton relied on in making its assurances of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and relevant implementing regulations, barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin as of January 1, 2015;
  • A spreadsheet of all Princeton employees and outside advisers or consultants (including but not limited to legal counsel) who were consulted regarding or who participated in collecting information for and drafting the President’s Letter and/or the Diversity Measures. The spreadsheet should contain: (1) the name and job title of each such person; (2) current contact information for each such person; and (3) a detailed narrative description of each such person’s role and activities.

I provided the elaboration on the last request to illustrate the degree of detail required in all the requests. Clearly, anyone aware of how a university operates would know that it would take virtually the entire university administration six months to a year to produce the requested documentation. Further, much if not most of the material requested could not be produced. No university could comply. This is just a mode of harassment aimed at liberal institutions to deflect them and advance the Trump position denying systemic racism in the United States.

The letter then went on to elaborate on the different types of records requested.

“Records” mean all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received, and including metadata, such as email and other electronic communication, draft and final word processing documents, social media (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) posts, PDF documents, animations (including PowerPoint™ and other similar programs) spreadsheets, databases, calendars, telephone logs, contact manager information, Internet usage files, network access information, writings, drawings, graphs, charts, photographs, sound recordings, images, financial statements, checks, wire transfers, accounts, ledgers, facsimiles, texts, animations, voicemail files, data generated by calendaring, task management and personal information management (PIM) software (such as Microsoft Outlook), data created with the use of personal data assistants (PDAs), data created with the use of document management software, data created with the use of paper and electronic mail logging and routing software, and other data or data compilations, stored in any medium from which information can be obtained either directly or, if necessary, after translation by the responding party into a reasonably usable form. The term “recorded information” as used above also includes all traditional forms of records, regardless of physical form or characteristics.

Instructions were also given on how those records should be collected and transmitted. In addition to the written records, a number of officials were to be made available for transcribed interviews under oath within 28 days. There were then three questions to which replies were required within 21 calendar days. Let me give just one to illustrate the absurdity of the request: “How many individuals were, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance by Princeton between January 1, 2015 and the present?” No organization could answer such a question.

The university would resort to its own adminfare and lawfare requesting clarifications, further elaborations, justifications, etc., to stall as well as prepare court challenges for the requests if push came to shove. The object would be to delay compliance until after the 4 November election in hopes that Trump will be defeated and the political directions to the government altered.

The Social Dilemma

Jeff Orlowski’s docu-drama, The Social Dilemma, paints a picture of a dystopia already upon us in which, catastrophically, we have willingly and without coercion handed over our freedoms to the technology of social media. If that seems too strong a claim, if that seems excessive, watch the film. Worse, this is happening when the executives of such companies as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, HBO Max, Tik Tok are fully aware of what is happening. They have deliberately constructed the system this way, not only to monetize connectivity, but to put the system on automatic pilot. As the addiction to astronomical profits grows exponentially among the elite few, the addiction to a technology that reinforces existing beliefs rather than bringing them into question expands among the many.

Like the warnings on the climate crisis, the film is not just a dire warning, but a call to self-consciousness about what we are doing to our own societies, to our own children. We have become addicted, and we have allowed our children to become addicted, to a commercialized system which trades access to social media in return for providing advertisers access to our minds and hearts. Corporations are given access to our patterns of preferences so those patterns can be reinforced and manipulated. And it is being done in a feedback loop so that the more the social media is used, the more our preferences are reinforced, the more  our ability to choose is depleted and the more we become addicted.

These are not the conclusions of anti-digital neo-Luddites, but come from a dozen or so ex-executives, conscientious objectors, or, more accurately, defectors from the same companies who participated in constructing the system. These leading lights retained their critical sense and tools to diagnose the addiction. They came to some type of self-recognition of what they had done and were doing and left the behemoths of Silicon Valley. But the powerful moments in the film are not the repeated testimonies of one after another of these graduates of Stanford University, but the statistical data on what is happening to children, to teenaged addicts of the media. In the last ten years, suicide rates have climbed significantly upwards so that the pattern resembles that of the coronavirus pandemic, except there has been no flattening of the curve.

These victims are but the extreme tip of the iceberg. Vast swaths of teenagers have psychological and identity problems that can be traced directly to the addiction to social media. They suffer from depression. They suffer from anxiety. In the fictional side of this docu-drama of a typical suburban middle-class family, the two youngest children are the greatest victims. Isla (Sophia Hammons), the youngest daughter just entering her teen years, is addicted to Instagram that heightens her anxieties about her sense of self as she seeks and increasingly needs signals of approval. Ben (Skyler Gisondo), about two years older, reveals that he cannot escape his addiction as he falls deeper into the rabbit hole of fake news and a reinforcing tribal ideology.

The degree of suffering is far worse than has ever been measured among teenagers. I personally do not use any of these social media. I remain a digital troglodyte who uses the computer only as a search engine, for writing and for distribution. I do not even own a smart phone. Nevertheless, the film made me aware of how my searches, how the inputs into my mind, are being limited and effectively controlled, not to determine and dictate a specific content, but to reinforce the input of only a selective segment of information and analyses that limit my ability to undertake analyses and make choices.

The technology does not control the inputs. It is not a brainwashing system for a specific ideology. However, by the very way it works, by the very way it plays on appetites and desires far more than on cognitive curiousity, it leads to altered patterns of behaviour and an altered set of priorities and an altered system of evaluation which we do not control but that dictate the reinforcement of tribalism rather than globalism, of closed  rather than open loops and the propensity of “fake news,” yes, fake news to invade our conscious selves.

For these media are unregulated. They claim they are just platforms; they do not control the content. And they do not. Not in the sense of determining what actually goes in. Instead, the algorithms created and the apps developed automatically perform that function through the creation and reinforcement of feedback loops that increasingly limit the scope of what is available to our minds precisely at a time when the utopia of a universal world of information is readily available literally at the press of our fingertips.

Suddenly, the patterns of our politics, of demonstrations and political rallies, of both sides of the political spectrum and the ways in which political opinion is increasingly expressed, becomes clearer. And the dangers! The extreme dangers! For the essence of politics is, in the end, communication and compromise, the interchange of ideas and stratagems. However, the new system cares almost nothing about discourse and everything about capturing and reinforcing preferences, preferences of taste, preferences of ideas and even preferences for the shapes of others’ noses.

The witnesses are not disgruntled ex-executives who have been fired, but mostly very successful ones who resigned as they became more self-conscious about the system they were creating. As one ex-Vice President said, he does not allow his children to have smart phones or to access social media on their computers without supervision of the time spent and the programs accessed. This was not a declaration of paranoia, but a point about a real danger. Increasingly, we are evidently being pinned down to the log in Plato’s cave so that we see more and more images, not of what some “they” want us to see, but which we prefer to see. “They” do not have to control the content. It is sufficient if they control the reinforcement mechanisms. There is no one manning the projector behind us whom we do not know. Though this is sometimes the case, particularly in authoritarian societies, the system is more insidious. The controls and increasingly restricted boundaries are set by ourselves, We are married to the technology and the programming methods. The system is automated.

The Cassandras offering these warnings are not guys driven out of the industry because they were whistleblowers but mostly men who became rich from the industry and their contributions to the system, but who became aware that they had sold their intellectual souls to the devil. That devil was not an Other out to control us, but ourselves ready and willing to become bondsman to our own desires and preferences rather than to learn and question those biases. We are the devil. The evil is found on the tips of our own tongues that have become stuck and glued to the technology just as our tongues become attached to steel light poles when we touch those poles with our tongues when the weather is freezing.

Sophocles wrote: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” This is the first quotation we see in this documentary. “When all things befall you – the blessing and the curse,” (Deuteronomy 30:1) unless you free yourself from being mesmerized by the blessings of this wonderful technology and take the curses to heart, then you will be responsible for the loss of your freedom that is already well underway.

The utopian promise of the system was married at the hip to a bed of desire that makes the system so delectable. It is also very easy. At the same time, there is a built-in a poisoned piece of fruit that devours our independence, our ability to make free choices and, instead, enslaves us within this idolatrous feedback loop of consumption, of reinforcing ideas, thoughts, beliefs and preferences. Predictive Artificial Intelligence (AI) uses “attention extraction” to keep you clicking as the harvesting of your data and identity is used to send advertisements your way that, in turn, reinforce existing propensities. Infinite scrolling and push notifications keeps readers constantly engaged. By using these techniques, our brains are not only manipulated, but reinforced by algorithms.

Look at a sample of specialists on social media and the roster of veterans responsible for developing a technology with such a cursed outcome:

  • Tristan Harris, a design ethicist at Google, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the star of a film that tries to avoid the star system
  • Professor Anna Lembke from Stanford University, an addiction expert
  • Robert McNamee, an older suit-and-tie early investor in Google and/or Facebook
  • Justin Rosenstein, a former Google and Facebook engineer who introduced the “Like” button for Facebook
  • Jeff Seibert, a former Twitter executive
  • Professor Shoshana Zuboff, a specialist on social media

Orlowski and his collaborators, producer Larissa Rhodes, writer/editor Davis Coombe, writer Vickie Curtis and composer Mark Crawford, combine the cited interviews with animated cartoons, dramatic re-enactments, and the graphical awesome and fear instilling graphics on statistics that we have become so familiar with in the age of a pandemic. But the system is far more corrosive than Coca Cola, for it is an auto-immune disease. The very systems in our hearts and brains and guts used to defend ourselves are turned inward and counteract our ability to think critically and occupy a healthy space for making decisions.

We come away from the film with some memorable mantras, aphorisms and analogies:

  • “If the product is free, you’re the product.”
  • “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix?” 
  • “We have created a system to induce dependency on digital pacifiers as the drugs of choice.”
  • “We are the silver (or gold) mine” for the really valuable data is our preferences and not what is actually chosen.
  • “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.”

The exercise of AI attention extraction or harvesting, to use an agricultural rather than an industrial metaphor, is the modern mine’s old pick-axe and shovel or the farmer’s hand-held plough. Professor Shoshana Zuboff called what is extracted as not the metals or the foods, but more akin to the “futures” in a stock market in which these data markets are like pork bellies.

These high tech innovators and entrepreneurs, in their drive to advance a utopia, have created a Frankenstein, a monster that has been delivered into the hands of advertisers in order to generate the revenues, in order to monetize the system, and offer us such cheap and easy access to the offerings. No better seduction system has ever been created in the whole history of humanity.

Can the pervasive influence of non-regulated, or, at the very least, under-regulated social media be stopped from destroying civilization from within by the employment of government regulation and, possibly, taxes on information transfers? The documentary does not offer an answer, only a series of warnings about the disaster already upon us and the urgency of changing course. For the paradox is how do we, like Münchausen, lift ourselves by our own shoe laces never mind bootstraps when the very system designed to facilitate more informed choices becomes enslaved to a system that undermines trust, that weakens democratic practices and that puts us on a trajectory, not simply of rolling a boulder up a hill that rolls down again just before we reach the pinnacle, but puts us on a treadmill or a wheel for infinite scrolling like a pet rat who cannot even move up a hill or easily get off the exercise device.

Harold Adams Innis, the famous Canadian economist who pioneered “staples” (fur, fish, metals, lumber, wheat) theory to explicate the workings of the Canadian economy, suggested that the system of communications developed by a society shaped the culture and development of civilization. Marshall McLuhan offered us the slogan, “The medium is the message” to capture how the printing press and, later, radio and television, shaped the way we thought by the very character of the technology of communication. They were joined by a host of Cassandras, warning about the dangers of powerful advertising media that favoured immediacy over continuity and permanence. The technology threatened to undermine society as we knew it and to produce a new culture.

The current cohort of Cassandras are much scarier than Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan. For the technology no longer just shapes how we think but allows the reinforcement of our feelings and fears by means of a feedback loop that threatens civilization itself. Technology that used to shape and undergird different expressions of civilization is now the hydrogen bomb that threatens to destroy it if pandemics and climate change do not cross the finish line first.

Yuval Noah Harari is a critic of Silicon Valley as he posits that we now live in a new epoch. [Cf. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018)] While he adopts the latest epistemological position that all traditional modes of establishing objectivity have evaporated as mist, what is left is a blank slate awaiting, not a higher form of knowledge, but new myths, new narrative, new tales we can tell ourselves. However, this opportunity emerges at the same time that Silicon Valley has produced a new system that induces us, not to choose, but to reinforce what we already preferred.

How do we escape? Tomorrow: Culture Wars and the University

The End of the WEIRD and the Rebirth of Conformity

Civil wars, as in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century in England, are often fought simply for power. One group has it. The other group wants it based on grievances against those who hold the power. When the institutions are lacking or, at the very least weakened, that adjudicate power conflicts, civil wars result.

But some civil wars are as much about ideology as power. Just over a century and a half after the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War broke out in the seventeenth century. This time the war was not between and among members of the same class, the landed nobility, but between the rising commercial classes (merchants, traders, manufacturers) versus the nobility. Ideology was used in the service of the rebels against the aristocracy to enable the new rising class to breach the oppressive grip of the feudal order that was strangling the “upstarts.”

The upstarts claim to be the authentic democrats. The resistors in power claim the loyalty of the ordinary people in opposition. Do the ordinary folk side with the Democrats or with the ruling economic elite who claim to represent custom and tradition? In the English Civil War, “When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be ‘downright separatists,’ the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The ‘gathered Churches’ of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the ‘gathered Churches’ would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.” (C. V. Wedgewood, The King’s War, 1641-1647, 481)

There is a growing speculation in the United States currently that if Donald Trump wins a second term or if he refuses to give up his elected throne if he is defeated, there is a danger of civil war in the United States with both the North-East and the Western states attempting to secede from a system that inherently favours Blue states over Red States given the structure of the Senate and the way the Electoral College works.

As in England, the crisis erupts initially in the centres where the priesthood is located and educated. In our current age, that is the universities who spew out the priests for our contemporary society, especially now that the universities have increasingly fallen under the control of a new moral order. (See my last blog.) Trump has already declared war on the universities claiming that they are dominated by leftist doctrinaires who seek to deconstruct the American political system and its values in opposition to the lofty principles of the founding fathers. Those insisting that American society is riddled with structural racism will soon be countered by Trump’s 1776 National Commission to “promote a curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” most basically that the nation was founded on the principles of freedom, not oppression.

The Commission will celebrate patriotic norms rather than radical egalitarianism. “Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country. American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at work or the repression of traditional faith, culture and values in the public square. Not anymore,” claimed Trump. The educational elites have betrayed America, not Donald Trump who arguably had another write his exams and even his essays.

Criticism of existing institutions, criticisms of the police, criticisms of America’s core beliefs are all unpatriotic. America is a beacon of freedom and democracy, and a moral leader and not a racist and oppressive system. “What we’re witnessing today is a result of left-wing indoctrination in our nation’s schools and universities. Many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism.” America was founded on liberty, not on racism. Trump had already declared war on the federal bureaucracy banning racial sensitivity training in the name of American exceptionalism.

It is ironic when those in power, those with great wealth, present themselves as aggrieved and appeal to White fears and insecurity.  The war against liberal university is a real one. Just last week, the federal education department sent a letter to Princeton University announcing an investigation of the institution, more specifically the “systemic racism of the university that runs contrary to the anti-racism laws of the United States. The argument of structural racism is being turned against the universities themselves to establish that they are racist, but really to harass them and tie them up so that the members are not free to work for liberal and progressive candidates.

Robert King, Assistant Secretary, Office of Postsecondary Education, in pursuit of a program of using federal anti-racists statutes to use adminfare to tie universities in knots, sent a letter to Christopher L. Eisgruber, President of Princeton University dated 16 September 2020. The university two weeks earlier had launched a program of scholarly and operational initiatives to counteract racism by the Diversity Office.  (https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/09/02/update-and-overview-princeton-universitys-ongoing-efforts-combat-systemic-racism)

The letter made the following points:

  • Since 2013, the university had received $75 million of taxpayer funds (presumably for research undertaken by scholars and scientists at the university) and certified that the university was in compliance with the Civil

Rights Act of 1964

  • Title VI provides no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance
  • The university has also made equal non-discriminatory and opportunity representations to students, parents and consumers
  • The letter of 2 September claimed the university had been racist
  • Logically, that meant that the university was not in compliance with Title IV or with laws requiring honest advertising.

Of course, the logic is absurd. It is possible to be non-discriminatory in policies yet have continuing discriminatory practices.  

The federal government also attacked the new initiative to explore how to extend Princeton’s teaching to a new range of students disproportionately affected by systemic racism and that, because of racism, race-based diversity measures would be utilized in hiring, procurement and teaching. This in itself the government now regarded as racist since the policy favoured some races over others.

Given that the university had admitted to racism, its applications for funds may have been false and were knowingly false at the time and had engaged in misleading advertising. Such a claim would have no merit. The illogic was too evident. However, on the basis of such a charge, the university was asked to deliver to the department reams of documents and personnel to answer questions under oath. “Princeton should provide requested records, make available the identified Princeton personnel for transcribed interviews under oath, and answer the specified questions in accordance with the deadlines specified below.” Princeton should also “make every effort to answer our requests fully and completely”

The letter warned that the government could and would request repayment of funds if indeed the university was deemed in non-compliance with Title IV and with provisions of false and misleading advertising. “(T)he serious, even shocking nature of Princeton’s admissions compel the Department to move with all appropriate speed.” The university was given 21 calendar [not work] days – .e. 15 work days (excluding in my list the elaboration of a request) to supply the following:

  • Each record that you identified, referred to, described, relied upon, reviewed, or used in any way in preparing your written response. Please also identify and describe in detail each such record.
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the President’s Letter from 1 April 2020 to the present
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the Diversity Measures.
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s “systemic” and/or “embedded” racism from January 1, 2013 to the present
  • A spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or “damage” referenced in the President’s Letter from January 1, 2015 to the present
  • All records concerning or relating to Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity representations to the Department, to other federal government departments, agencies, or instrumentalities, or to the public from January 1, 2015 to the present
  • All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s promise in its Program Participation Agreements with the Department of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and the implementing regulations from January 1, 2015 to the present.
  • All records Princeton relied on in making its assurances of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and relevant implementing regulations, barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin as of January 1, 2015
  • A spreadsheet of all Princeton employees and outside advisers or consultants (including but not limited to legal counsel) who were consulted regarding or who participated in collecting information for and drafting the President’s Letter and/or the Diversity Measures. The spreadsheet should contain: (1) the name and job title of each such person; (2) current contact information for each such person; and (3) a detailed narrative description of each such person’s role and activities.

I provided the elaboration on the last request to illustrate the degree of detail required in all the requests. Clearly, anyone aware of how a university operates would know that it would take virtually the entire university administration six months to a year to produce the requested documentation. Further, much if not most of the material requested could not be produced. No university could comply. This is just a mode of harassment aimed at liberal institutions to deflect them and advance the Trump position denying systemic racism in the United States.

The letter then went on to elaborate on the different types of records requested.

“Records” mean all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received, and including metadata, such as email and other electronic communication, draft and final word processing documents, social media (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) posts, PDF documents, animations (including PowerPoint™ and other similar programs) spreadsheets, databases, calendars, telephone logs, contact manager information, Internet usage files, network access information, writings, drawings, graphs, charts, photographs, sound recordings, images, financial statements, checks, wire transfers, accounts, ledgers, facsimiles, texts, animations, voicemail files, data generated by calendaring, task management and personal information management (PIM) software (such as Microsoft Outlook), data created with the use of personal data assistants (PDAs), data created with the use of document management software, data created with the use of paper and electronic mail logging and routing software, and other data or data compilations, stored in any medium from which information can be obtained either directly or, if necessary, after translation by the responding party into a reasonably usable form. The term “recorded information” as used above also includes all traditional forms of records, regardless of physical form or characteristics.

The letter then went on to provide instructions on how those records should be collected and transmitted. To the written records, a number of officials were to be made available for transcribed interviews under oath within 28 days. There were then three questions to which replies were required within 21 calendar days. Let me give just one to illustrate the absurdity of the request: “How many individuals were, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance by Princeton between January 1, 2015 and the present?” No organization could answer such a question.

It is clear that the university would resort to its own adminfare requesting clarifications, further elaborations, justifications, etc. to stall as well as prepare court challenges for the requests if push came to shove. The object would be to stall until after the 4 November election in hopes that Trump will be defeated and the political directions to the department altered.

On Sacrifice, the Abraham Accords and Trump Rallies

Deuteronomy 24:16 reads:

טז  לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת:  אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.  {ס}16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin. 

Children shall not be put to death for fathers, and, therefore, by fathers. Yet in Genesis 22, God called Abraham, who replied, “Here I am.” Then God ordered Abraham to:


ב   קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
2 “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering (my italics) upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’

Isaac is not just a son; he is a son much loved by his father. Why did God give Abraham such an order? The text is clear; to test him. But for what? When Abraham picks up the knife to slay his son, an angel of the Lord, not God Himself, called out to him: “Abraham, Abraham.” This time the father’s name is repeated twice, possibly to make sure the angel got Abraham’s attention. Why did God not retract His order Himself? Why did He use an agent? Abraham gave exactly the same reply as he did when he was called the first time. “Here I am.” I am here to do whatever I am asked. Here I am.

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי.12 And he [the angel] said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’

Presumably, this was the test. Abraham proved that his devotion was so great that he would not withhold even his son as an offering to God. But is this the correct or the best interpretation of the Akeidah story? One justification for God’s action is that child sacrifice is clearly of a different order than sacrificing a ram. God, through His agent, in calling it off, and, in so doing, is, in reality, condemning child sacrifice. After all, Leviticus 18:21 reads: “You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” However, it says do not sacrifice your child to Molech – other passages say to Baal. They do not command that your child not be sacrificed to God. In fact, God repeatedly insists that the first of your children belongs to God.

Deuteronomy, as put forth in the opening paragraph, seems somewhat different. There, as in Deuteronomy 18:10, sacrificing your own child for any reason seems to be condemned. “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer.” In fact, the wrath of God would be delivered upon Israel if a father offered his son as a sacrifice. “Then he took his oldest son, who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.” (2 Kings 3:27) Sacrificing your son was an abomination of other nations. Sacrificing your son to God was an abominable act. (Deuteronomy 12:31) When you cause your child to pass through the fire, you defile yourself. (Ezekiel 20:31)

Yet in Christianity, God purportedly sacrifices His only son to save mankind. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Is not what is good enough for God, good enough for humans? Should not humans be willing to sacrifice their children for a higher purpose?

There is another interpretation of the Akeidah story. In Genesis, child sacrifice is not forbidden. Ritual sacrifice of children was part of early Judaism. Abraham got off the hook because he showed such great fidelity to God. But others possibly did not. It was only in mature Judaism that child sacrifice was banned only to be inverted in Christianity and ascribed as the highest expression of God’s faith in humanity when God sacrificed His son. Further, in some interpretations, God Himself is identified as Molech.

Let me offer a final interpretation – though there are others. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a contrast with what he actually did to Ishmael, his oldest son, the child of Hagar, when Sarah demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be expelled. Then Abraham resisted at first until God sided with Sarah, but then once again gave a reprieve by offering water when Hagar and Ishmael were on the verge of dying of thirst in the wilderness.

I do not want to enter a debate about these or other interpretations that focus on the morality of sacrifice. Instead, I want to concentrate on the phenomenology of sacrifice first by examining the various ways sacrifice is applied to the Israel–United Arab Emirates normalization agreement and the Israel-Bahrain normalization agreement. Formally, they are known as the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel and, with respect to Bahrain, the Abraham Accords: Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations.  

What has been most noted about both agreements, even more than the contents about ending boycotts, formal recognition of Israel, establishing normal diplomatic relations and working together on technological, financial, agricultural, health and trade relations, is the sacrifice of the Palestinians. They were not party to either agreement. Though lip service was paid to a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, it was literally lip service. Even in the UAE-Israel Agreement, there was no mention of a suspension of annexation and for how many years.

Palestinians denounced the agreements even though the prospect of annexation was suspended for an estimated four years. Israel was rewarded, according to Palestinian critics, for expelling Palestinians from their land, destroying their lives and livelihoods and denying them the possibility of self-determination. Further, the two states together held fewer Arabs than those in the Gaza Strip. However, instead of the “Day of Rage” that Abbas called for in the West Bank, it became a day of weeping and an oppressive widespread feeling that once again the Palestinians had been thrown under the bus to serve the transactional and security interests of others.

However, this account bears no comparison to the Akeidah story. God did not order the sacrifice of the Palestinians. The sacrifice was definitely not for God – unless Trump=God. The offering was the Palestinians and they were definitely not the sons of Israel. Further, no scapegoat was introduced; Palestinians were shoved aside at the very least, though the peacemakers argued that they were not sacrificed.  In fact, many argued, they were given a real chance for self-determination in a meaningful geographical region because annexation had been postponed.

However, if annexation was not a real possibility, then it was not really surrendered and was not even made part of either agreement. More importantly, the Palestinians were not willing sacrificial lambs. This is a significant contrast with Isaac and more akin to what happened to Ishmael. For some, the name “Abraham Accords” was used to create an illusion of an Arab-Jewish alliance, but one without any depth and only a matter of mutual convenience. The real comparison is to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

However, could the Palestinians not be accused of willingly offering themselves as sacrificial lambs in their past refusal to re-enter peace negotiations, their unwillingness to thank the UAE for getting annexation suspended, and their fabulist hopes that the EU and/or the Third World would still salvage their position? They might be the ones sacrificed, but it was not the UAE or Bahrain who agreed to make the sacrifice. The Palestinians were pierced on their own petard. Thus, the fundamental essence of sacrifice – that it is an offering of oneself – makes it a suitable case.

I suggest that the key common elements of the Akeidah story are the following:

  • Isaac is a willing victim, seemingly indifferent to what is to happen to him
  • Abraham is a willing sacrificer, in fact, a robotic tool of God
  • A third party commands the action
  • A fourth party is left to rescind the demand, but that does not redeem Isaac
  • Isaac never sighs with relief let alone breaks out in laughter as his name would imply.

Lest this phenomenological approach to the Akeidah story appear to be way out in left field, let me offer the conclusion of an interpretation of a third case of sacrifice, one depicted by Ivan Strenski, Distinguished Professor (Emeritus), Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside.

Understood as civic sacrifice, I argue that the most coherent interpretation of Henderson, NV Trump rally as sacrifice is that the assembled devotees of the president were willingly sacrificing their own health and physical welfare for the benefit of enhancing the status of the president. I reach this conclusion on the basis of the facts that

  1. The assembled voluntarily ‘gave up’ the goods of their own future health prospects for the benefit of the president’s political purposes.
  2. In this sense, the assembly, not the president, was agent of sacrifice – the sacrifier. The crowd was a self-destructive victim of its own attitudes and inclinations.
  3. The assembled had not, therefore, been victimized by an external agency, but rather they themselves were willing sacrifices of their own health and welfare, made in the belief that the object of their devotion, their sacrifice – the president – would benefit thereby.

Does this also explain why Trump organizes these rallies? He deeply and truly loves his followers, even though he does not care about them or for them. For he loves them as followers. Further, the rallies are both tests and expressions of blind and passive belief.

Note the following additional points:

  • This is a case of extreme sacrifice because the Trumpers are voluntarily offering themselves as possible victims of a vicious virus in ignoring wearing masks and distancing;
  • It is possible to offer oneself and to be offered as a sacrifice by Trump (in contrast to Ivan’s view); just because the potential victims offer themselves willingly does not mean that Trump is not a sacrificer;
  • Further, Trump is both the sacrificer and the beneficiary of the willingness to be sacrificed;
  • Sacrifice is also possible without the sacrifice actually taking place – perhaps none of the participants at the Trump rally ended up with COVID-19;
  • Trump offers no redemption himself;
  • If there is relief from the consequences, ironically it comes ‘by grace of God’;
  • Trump is not God, whatever he may think of himself.

The moral of the tale: the lives of children should not be put at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Children should not willingly put themselves at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Sacrifice yourself at your own cost and for the benefit of another.

Shana Tova

Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart, in addition to participating in the webinar criticizing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) of antisemitism as an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel, published an article on 9 March 2019 entitled, “Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitic.” In the opening paragraph, he acknowledged that antisemitism was rising. However, attempts to respond to the phenomenon were being used to victimize Palestinians. That is regular non-anti-Zionist antisemitism was being abused, not simply to undermine Palestinian claims, but to abuse Palestinians. This went significantly further than Lara Friedman’s claim examined in the last blog.

Beinart wrote that rhetoric “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is equated with anti-Zionism, in turn equated with Jew hatred. This contains logical missteps. One can oppose Zionism without opposing the right of Jews to advocate Zionism, to press for the expression and application of the right to self-determination by the Jewish people. The IHRA definition, the supporters of that definition, do NOT equate “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” with anti-Zionism. Rather, that very specific form of anti-Zionism is equated with Jew hatred.  

There are many Jews, as well as non-Jews, who are non-Zionists and many who are anti-Zionists. The Bundists were anti-Zionist; they did not declaim the right to argue for Zionism. Even the Hasidic sects, Satmar and Neturei Karta, zealously opposed to Zionism, did not and do not claim that Jews did not and do not have a right to seek self-determination. They merely argued that such a quest should await the arrival of the messiah.  Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel are anti-messiah. The sects, therefore, deny the creation of Israel is legitimate according to the precepts of the Jewish religion as they understand them. They do not oppose the right of Jews to advocate that position, only the position itself in the current period as the appropriate time for such advocacy and belief. The legitimacy of such advocacy and measures to implement it at this time are challenged.

Beinart claims that the IHRA definition of antisemitism claims that “anti-Zionism is Jew hatred.” This is just false. It does no such thing. Instead, it claims that some forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic and offers example of such forms, such as denying the right of Jewish self-determination. For detached observers, the latter may or may not be antisemitic. But that does not amount to a claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Whether the 30 or more states that have adopted such a definition were or were not correct to do so, they were not adopting the position that anti-Zionism equals Jew hatred.

“Anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic.” Peter is dead right. But I can find no one who claims that it is. And Peter provides no examples. But Peter goes very much further. He not only insists that there are those who make such a claim, including the 30+ countries who adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, but that, in doing so, it amounts to using Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience. Perhaps organizations do this. But Peter offers no examples. Further, Canada adopted the definition and I have seen no effort by Canada to deny either the suffering or the rights of Palestinians.

Peter then writes the rest of his article attacking a ghost that evidently claims that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic without providing any evidence that any real body holds such a position. He argues that someone who holds such a position – and, again, he provides no case – claims that such an equation includes three pillars:

  • Zionism is antisemitic because it denies what every other people enjoys: a state of its own
  • It is bigoted to take away that statehood once it is achieved, namely the elimination of the Zionist identity and political dispossession of those who cherish it
  • Virtually all anti-Zionists are also anti-Semites; anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

Further, he argues that defining anti-Zionism as bigotry serves a political purpose – helping Israel “kill the two-state solution with impunity.”

Look at the large numbers of logical fallacies he commits in making his arguments. The core of the argument is as follows:

  1. Every other people enjoys a state of their own.
  2. Zionism claims that Jews also should have a state of their own.
  3. Those who oppose the Zionist claim are making an exception for Jewish self-determination if they do not oppose other nations having a state of their own.
  4. Hence, anti-Zionism is antisemitic.

Proposition 1 above is obviously empirically false. There are hundreds of nations that do not have their own state. Propositions 2 & 3 are accurate depictions of both Zionists and the type of anti-Zionism that Zionism declares as antisemitic. Proposition 4 does not follow from 2&3, only the claim that anti-Zionists who deny only Jews the right to self-determination are antisemitic.

Beinart also equates the claim that, “all other peoples can seek and defend their right to self-determination” is exactly the same as claiming a state of one’s own. But it is clear that a right to self-determination is not the same as having an actual state of one’s own or even claiming a state of one’s own. Many nations are satisfied with different degrees of autonomy as satisfying their right to self-determination. There are perhaps hundreds of nations on this earth who do not have such a state, do not claim such a state and do not even insist on any degree of self-determination in the territory where they find themselves. Further, denying them such a state does not deny their right to demand such a state.

Some authoritarian countries do compress the two claims, a right to claim and a right to have a state of their own and determine that claiming a right to have, for example, a Kurdish state is illegal. Similarly, China does that with Tibetans. Peter not only fails to point out that this collapsing of two notions into one is the problem, not opposing a nation’s right to claim a state of its own. He also fails to mention that the Israeli government does not follow the lead of Turkey or China in preventing Palestinians from claiming the right to have their own state even though the extreme right and even the not-so-extreme right would not agree to Palestinians being able to exercise such a right. In fact, the Palestinian parties in the Knesset all make the claim for Palestinian self-determination and it is not considered either illegal or immoral to do so.

There is a separate and related issue – opposing or defending states which are based on ethnic nationalism – such as Croatia or Serbia. Some believe in ethnic nationalism is a danger and prefer civic nationalism which does not favour any ethnic group. But no one declares proponents of civic nationalism, whether in Israel or elsewhere, to be against the right of others to argue for ethnic nationalism.

What about claims for exclusive ethnic nationalism? Beinart suggests Jewish Zionists make such a claim when they argue that Israel is and should remain a Jewish state. But what the latter are claiming generally is that the primary identification of the state should be Jewish and that the state should serve the Jewish people. This does not exclude equal rights for minorities, but it does not mean equality with respect to symbolic political identification, such as with the flag, the national anthem or national holidays.

Beinart’s repeated error is one of conflation. Take the second claim that it is bigoted to take away statehood once it is achieved, that is elimination of the Zionist identity as a political entity. It is an abuse of rights for China to have taken away the independence of Tibetans as well as to deny the right of Uyghurs to argue for and claim a degree of autonomy or even independence. Being a Catalan or Basque nationalist in itself in Spain or a Quebecois separatist in Canada is not a crime. Disagreeing with that position is not bigotry. It is just politics.

The argument, however, is those who would reverse history and seek to eliminate the Jewish state is considered an act of antisemitism. The reality is that a good number of Palestinians – and others – believe that Israel in exercising its right of self-determination effectively has denied the ability of Palestinians to do the same. Thus, there is an either/or choice – a State of Palestine or a State of Israel, possibly with a rump and fragmented Palestinian state alongside. Does pushing the last option amount to antisemitism?

First, the IHRA proposal does not say that it is. Many Arab states for years opposed the creation of a Jewish state in the Arab heartland; describing the effort to create such a state as “racist,” however, is what characterizes such claims as antisemitic. The context of the opposition is telling and not the opposition itself. Arab opposition could have been antisemitic, depending on the rationale. This is a case where one cannot make a determination without an examination of the details of the case.

From the above, it is clear that all anti-Zionists, or even most, are not antisemitic. Nor does the definition anywhere say that they are. One can even be an anti-Zionist and support a two-state solution with the argument that one would have preferred that Israel had not been created for a number of geo-political reasons but that, since it exists, it is better to accept that reality than fight for an alternative one.

Finally, what about the use of characterizing anti-Zionism as bigotry to deny a two-state solution? I do not doubt some right-wingers may use this approach, but it is certainly not the reason that Canada adopted the IHRA definition since Canada is a vigorous supporter of the two-state solution. Nor do I expect that this entered into the reasoning of any of the other 30+ countries that adopted the definition. 

Peter and Lara’s problem is that they conflate abuse with normal use, that they see an anti-Palestinian agenda behind such moves instead of just a pro-Israel and pro-Jewish agenda. Lara and Peter may prefer civic nationalism to ethnic nationalism and certainly to exclusive ethnic nationalism, but that preference should not colour any consideration of whether some anti-Zionist positions should be correlated with or even classified as antisemitism. Certainly, efforts the oppose Zionism on any of the grounds provided in the definition should not be equated with every kind of anti-Zionism and certainly not with the belief in reconfiguring the Israeli state into one which places civic nationalism rather than ethnic nationalism at its centre. Many Israeli academics that I know support such a position. Not one of them is antisemitic. Not one of them falls under the definition of forms of anti-Zionism that are antisemitic.

Peter Beinart has a strong propensity to exaggerate. He claims that Jewish ethnic nationalism “excludes many of the people under its control.” The reason it does this it to protect the dominance of the Jewish nation. Not because it may fear lifting such controls lest the population try to drive the Israeli Jews off the land. It may no longer be the objective of most Palestinians, at least in the West Bank, but it is generally recognized as a prominent motive among a large group of Palestinians, some of whom can legitimately be branded as antisemitic.

Mostly, Peter Beinart indulges in the use of straw men arguments, claiming that the intent of characterizing certain expressions of anti-Zionism as antisemitic is really a technique for disenfranchising Palestinians and delegitimizing the supporters of Israel. Peter also makes the point that a significant assortment of pro-Zionists is also antisemitic. I think this is incontrovertible but totally beside the point of whether the IHRA definition is a useful one in characterizing antisemitism. The definition does not say that all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. Far from it. It also does not say that pro-Zionists can’t be antisemitic.

Peter is correct when he asserts that “antisemitism exists without anti-Zionism.” “Anti-Zionism also clearly exists without antisemitism.” The authors and promoters of the IHRA definition believe the same thing. The issue is how you recognize when they overlap so that anti-Zionism can be characterized as a form of antisemitism. When Beinart declares that the only reason why non-Jewish leaders – in Canada, in France, etc. – go along with this is because they are conforming to the pressures of Jewish leaders, he insults non-Jewish leaders of Western states and borders on a kind of antisemitism that suggests that the Jewish lobby is so powerful that it can get leaders of the West to vote against the interests of their own country as well as rational arguments. He has the conceit to believe that his arguments are rational. They are not.

The problem is that the arguments are full of holes and the aspersions of motives are insulting.

Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Lara Friedman

Last Thursday, a webinar was organized by the Foundation for Middle East Peace with Lara Friedman, the President of the Foundation, Peter Beinart, editor of Dissent, and Liz Jackson, a founding staff attorney for Palestine Legal and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The purpose of the webinar was supposedly to analyze, but really to attempt to debunk any effort to connect anti-Zionism to antisemitism. Unfortunately, the other extreme makes the opposite mistake, identifying anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This includes Jared Kushner who, in a New York Times op-ed, wrote that the presidential order officially recognizing the IHRA definition (see below) stated that, “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

The discussion in the webinar has not as yet been posted on the Foundation’s website. Fortunately, Friedman and Beinart had written on the subject at earlier dates so there is a written record of their views. Therefore, I have restricted my analysis to their arguments on the topic beginning with Friedman in this blog.

On 19 August 2020, Lara Friedman published an essay in Jewish Currents (edited by Peter Beinart) entitled, “Israel-Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook to Label Criticism of Israel as Hate Speech.” One could imagine an opposition article being written: “Anti-Israel Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook (and other social media) to Label Defenders of Israel as Advocates of Repression of Free Speech.” Neither took place. The pro-Israeli groups urged those social media organizations to adopt a definition of some types of anti-Zionist rhetoric as antisemitic. The anti-Israel groups claimed that the one effort to pressure social media to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was an effort to repress free speech, more particularly, free speech that targeted Israel for criticism.

Ten days earlier, 130 advocacy and Jewish groups had pressed Facebook to crackdown on antisemitic content and called on the company to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Although Lara labeled it the official definition of antisemitism, it was, in fact, a working definition. The IHRA Chair at the May 2016 session when it was adopted argued for its adoption to enable action in order to find a “legally binding working definition.”

The working definition adopted reads as follows: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The definition does not explicitly mention anti-Zionism, but the opposition to its adoption has come from strong critics of the policies of the State of Israel and their fear that the definition has been and will continue to be used to suppress criticism of Israel.

One cannot enter into this debate without encountering huge disparities. For example, in the Jewish briefs to Facebook, one cannot find anywhere where anyone or any group argues for labeling criticism of Israel as hate speech. In fact, the briefs go out of their way to differentiate criticism of Israel and its policies from criticism of Israel and Zionism that they characterize as hate speech. That does not mean that Lara Friedman is wrong. It may be that the intent of getting the definition adopted is nefarious; that it is intended to be used to suppress criticism of Israel, or, at the very least, inhibit such criticism. But that is clearly not what the pro-IHRA definition says.

Lara in her written piece seems less bothered by the definition than the examples offered to illustrate the definition, particularly those with respect to criticisms of Israel. The definition came with seven of the eleven examples applicable to Israel:

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.

Lara Friedman argued that at least #s 3 & 4 “can be interpreted to define much criticism of Israel.” But can it? And if it can, should that type of criticism not be branded as antisemitic? One can argue that Jews should not adopt a policy of self-determination – Jews should not endorse Zionism and would be better off pursuing integration in other states. Such a position would clearly not be antisemitic. What makes the example above antisemitic is the “denial of the right to self-determination.”

One might claim that Tibetans should not insist on self-determination but that would not be arguing they have no right to make such a claim. One could make the same argument about the Kurds – and many other national groups. But in the debates over self-determination for nations, only authoritarians deny the group the right to make such a claim. Instead, they are more customarily denied the right to be independent not the right to make a claim for self-determination. Critics generally argue that the claim for independence runs contrary to history, to the geo-politics of the region, is not justified, is ill-advised, has little chance of success, etc. None of these is equivalent to denying the right to make the claim.

Certainly many, if not most, criticisms of Israel and its policies are not antisemitic. Lara, however, claims that denying the Jewish people the right to claim self-determination, characterizing the claim as a racist one or applying double standards can be interpreted to define much criticism of Israel, Israeli policies, or Zionism as antisemitism. It may. But that merely begs the question. Are they antisemitic assertions or not? Further, the vast majority of criticisms with which I am familiar do not deny Jews the right to self-determination, or characterize Jews as racists if they are Zionists who believe in Jewish self-determination, or apply a double standard in judging Israeli actions compared to those of other states. There are many more of the latter than the first two but, in most cases, I find little evidence of antisemitism even if there is considerable evidence of hypocrisy.

There is a huge discrepancy between Lara’s empirical claim and my experience, but her knowledge may be much greater than mine. However, she offers little evidence in support of her position. What she does offer, does not seem to provide the required support. In any case, it is a huge stretch to suggest that the application of such standards constitutes “efforts “to officially exclude criticism of Israel from the bounds of acceptable discourse.” This is not simply hyperbole. This is gross distortion and runs directly contrary to the briefs presented. Again, it may be the case that this is a false front by Jewish organizations with precisely that intent, but given the claims made to deny it, the onus is on the critics to reveal the duplicity behind the proposed definition.

What evidence is offered along such lines?

  • The whole effort was spearheaded by pro-Israel attack dog StopAntisemitism.org.
  • StopAntisemitism.org is funded by hardline pro-Israel philanthropists, Adam and Gila Milstein
  • StopAntisemitism.org is best known for labeling critics of Israel, including some Jews, as anti-Semites
  • The list of signatories to the letter to Facebook is a who’s who of right-wing groups
  • The effort is backed by the Israeli government
  • Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the original draft that became the IHRA definition, said it was never intended to be used as a formalized, enforceable definition of antisemitism.

The last claim is unassailable. However, as I read the brief and the claims, the reference is always to a working definition rather than a legal defining term. Further, one would expect the Israeli government to back the effort, whether one agrees with it or not. Because the Israeli government backs it does not make it ipso facto bad. The Israeli government promoted the Israel-UAE accord, and, as vociferously as I disagree with many if not most Israeli government policies, the Israeli government promotion of the deal does not detract from its merit.

I would assume right-wingers would back the effort to get Facebook to change its policies. But so might, and so did, a wide swath of others, including non-Jews. In Canada, the effort to adopt the definition by the Canadian government, which was successful, was supported across the political spectrum. Lara has the strong propensity to assert guilt, not as a result of events, but as guilt by association.

In efforts to use the definition in policy debates in government and on campuses, are those efforts attempts “to suppress free speech”? If those efforts are made to deny people the right to express their ideas rather than as differences over what engagement or actions should be permitted or denied, they might be depicted as efforts to deny a right of free speech. However, the debate is over whether the position of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is antisemitic. Characterizing the battles over controversies involving BDS campaigns as a denial of free speech begs the question; it serves as a method of mischaracterizing such efforts in advance rather than as a disagreement over policy.

Facebook evidently adapted parts of the definition to deny certain uses of their platform. Lara seemed to be more concerned with efforts to brand BDS as antisemitic by enshrining the definition in law and applying it to social media. Including a definition in law as a guide – which is done with many definitions – does not enshrine it as formal and legal. It is just that, a guide. Legal definitions are generally short and reference cases and other sources of legal authority to clarify their meaning. A guide definition is generally somewhat longer and looser; cases are offered as illustrative rather than as formal case reference points to sharpen the legal definition.

Lara wrote, “The sole posting cited in Zachor’s letter [Zachor Legal Institute described as a hardline Israel advocacy group] to Facebook…mentions confronting the racist ideology of Zionism.” Lara claims that all examples cited in Zachor’s letters relate to criticisms of Israel. I could not reconcile how only one case cited became all criticisms of Israel. I went back to the actual Zachor letters to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to check.

Zachor does argue that adoption and implementation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is “as legitimate an anti-discrimination measure as the use of similar laws and regulations that prohibit other forms of discrimination, including LGBTQ and gender discrimination.” Zachor claims that the definition allows one to distinguish legitimate criticisms of Israel that are protected free speech and expressions that cross the line into “unprotected anti-Semitic hate speech.”

The real issue is whether adoption of the definition conflates antisemitism and criticism of Israel. If it did, that would be clearly inappropriate and should be disregarded. Even challenging the legitimacy of the IHRA definition as an indicator of antisemitism would be wrong. However, no examples are cited along these lines, just the claim. Further, the article asserts that, “the demand that social media adopt and enforce the full (my italics) IHRA definition represents a cynical strategy to co-opt progressive concerns about antisemitism to promote a hardline reactionary political agenda.” Then why would moderates adopt it? Are they just dupes of right-wing ideologists?

Why does Lara not even attempt to clarify which parts of the definition she considers antisemitic versus the full definition? Even if hard line right wingers misused the definition to generally decry criticism of Israel, misuse does not mean the definition itself is wrong or unhelpful. But Lara suggests that the problem is that Progressive groups (the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition) have been coopted by Jewish organizations like the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, to support adopting the definition.

Moment’s Anti-Semitism Monitor in the same month Lara’s article appeared identified over 100 left-wing groups in the U.S., including the American Friends Service Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Movement for Black Lives, calling for a boycott of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Why boycott the organization and its programs that have a long reputation for defending civil rights and opposing bigotry? Because the U.S. and Israel are colonialist powers. Because Israel is an ethnonationalist state carrying out a form of genocide against Palestinians. Because the ADL purportedly enabled Israelis to teach U.S. police forces violent tactics that result in the murders of African Americans. Because ADL allegedly blindly supports Israel’s right-wing government’s policies. The critique even suggests that the ADL enables President Trump white supremacist policies. The problem is that these assertions read like political agitprop and not as the conclusions of an empirical examination. They appear to be akin to the very illustrative cases identified by the IHRA definition of an anti-Zionist diatribe that reads like an antisemitic screed.

Assume for a minute that the efforts to adopt the definition are, in fact, being used to try to suppress criticism of Israel. (I wish Lara had illustrated that charge.) Even that would not make the adoption of the definition wrong. It would only show a misuse. The real issue, which is not grappled with, is whether the definition, if used properly and accurately, does suppress criticism of Israel. That argument is not even made let alone the evidence for it critically examined.

It may be the case that there is misuse. It may be the case that even the “proper” use of the definition leads to repression of free speech criticisms of Israel. But the arguments made are so illogical and so lacking in evidence, that one is pushed into supporting the adoption of the definition without a full exploration of its merits and shortcomings.

Does Peter Beinart offer a better critique?