I had never heard of Ben Shapiro until that Shabbat evening. My best friend, Yitzy, just got married, and I was headed to a sheva brachos, one of the parties religious Jews have after they get married. Yitzy and his wife were having his party at an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood that was filled mostly with the above-60 Orthodox set, and Yitzy’s Lubavitcher family. Yitzy said the shul had sponsored a speaker, Ben Shapiro, so Yitzy had paid for a couple of tables to support the event. Someone pointed out Shapiro to me — “He’s a great speaker. I saw a video of him debating guns with Piers Morgan and he was so good.” I hate guns. I can’t understand how we live in a country where even after the horrors of tragedies like what took place at Sandy Hook Elementary school—where 156 shots were fired in under five minutes, killing 6 adults and 20 children — people in this country still fight for their right to carry not only guns, but assault-weapons. Needless to say, I had a feeling I was not going to be a fan. But I assumed he would probably be talking about the need to support Israel, and outside of some jabs at Obama it would be more of the same — but it was so much crazier.
The opener — and forgive me for not quoting verbatim, as it was Shabbat and I wasn’t allowed to record any of this — went something like this: “Today is a very dark day in history.” He’s got to be talking about the horrible terrorist attacks that just took place on three continents, I told myself. But he was not. He was talking about marriage equality and the Supreme Court decision announced that morning. I looked around the room for any face that mirrored my horror — but it was a tough room. They were buying into this homophobe. Shapiro’s a Harvard law graduate who justifies his homophobia and religious intolerance with legal arguments that are over the top.
I couldn’t begin to recap all of his speech. It covered a lot. It meandered, it didn’t connect, and it intellectualized in order to justify sexism and racism, with arguments proving how the women’s wage gap is a lie, and how almost half of African-Americans are anti-Semites. He loves statistics so much that if he didn’t stand for “traditional marriage” I imagine he’d marry them. One topic pitted ISIS vs. the Liberals in America to see who was more dangerous. Hint: It’s the latter. He talked about how we need to indoctrinate kids into the Republican Party when they’re young, because once they’re 18, they don’t change parties. I found an interesting parallel between the way he suggested we appeal to the youth with the Republican message — for him it seemed to consist mainly of fear tactics against minorities who are destroying the country—and ISIS, who appealed to the young with a sense of purpose and blood and strength.
When it came time for the Q&A, I kept quiet for a while. He was asked who would win the presidency — he said it was likely going to be Hillary Clinton, and the crowd gave a collective groan. He gave them advice on how to fight off liberals, and how to teach all children self defense. He listed off the problems with the growing Hispanic community, which overwhelmingly votes democratic. He railed off statistics again — and played a fun racist game, where they guessed how many Asians voted for Obama. He said it was 78 percent. A woman, her face displaying disbelief, said, “Why are the Asians voting Democrat?” Another woman — in her late 30s and wearing a sheitel — said that she has daily debates with her housekeeper. She wondered aloud where her housekeeper was learning this liberal information, and then it came to her — “She’s learning it on the bus.” My jaw dropped as she proposed an idea to take Republicans and have them ride city buses to teach people. This led to a discussion on the importance of speaking Spanish. I thought my brain would explode.
I raised my hand, and then interrupted as he launched into another racist diatribe. I shouted out, “You sound racist! Every argument is a subtly racist way to scare the white Jews into thinking minorities are after them.” I imitated him and the questions people were asking. I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. Someone shouted, “Ask a question!” but I didn’t have one to ask. I had something to say. I told him both ISIS and Shapiro’s Republicans seem to share the same need to constantly wage war against an invisible good vs. evil and use race-baiting and scare tactics to sell their message. No one in the crowd understood what I was saying — or else they didn’t buy what I was saying. I felt like I was shouting in the wind. Ironically, I think Shapiro might have caught the parallel. He is smart. And then this smart man stood there in front of the entire orthodox synagogue and called me a “dumb ass.” I had him, I thought. This guy debates for a living, and his response was to call me a name. He lost.
A man started to sing, another man jumped in, and Shapiro sat down at his table. It was over. I didn’t get to accomplish what I wanted. One Iranian man came over to thank me. Most people yelled at me. A woman came over to tell me that she has a story for me. As expected it was about a black woman who she was nice to who’d turned against her. This was her proof that blacks are racist. It was hard to believe how disconnected this group was from reality. A few of my friends pushed me to debate with Shapiro, so I walked over to him and directly asked him why he used scare tactics to work up the crowd. We got into a debate about racism and white privilege, which he confused with white racism. Shapiro thought if he was nice to black people, then he can’t be accused of having white privilege. I told him that every day he benefits from white privilege, just by being white. When he catches a cab easier than a black person, that’s white privilege. He said I was racist for assuming all black people have the same experience. Then he rattled off statistics that proved how black people murder more than white people. I said if blacks and whites use drugs to the same degree, but blacks are disproportionately arrested (more than three times more likely to be arrested), is that racist? He said it wasn’t. I said, “Is it possible to see how that could trickle down to more problems in the black community?” He didn’t buy the connection. In fact, it turned into the most racist argument of them all — Is it possible that black people are more inherently defective than white people? Shapiro’s father slipped in front of me and blocked me out while we spoke. He tried to answer for his son. In fact, many people tried to answer for him — and I had more than one person screaming at me at the same time. One man got so worked up, and yelled things so racist, I told him I refused to talk to him. “How many black people do you see in museums?!” he kept shouting in my face.
And the next thing you knew, the shul was empty, save for Yitzy and his family. Some of them patted me on the back. Some were embarrassed. I felt disappointed in myself — like I could have done better. But no matter what I would have done, it would have devolved to old conservatives shouting at me. I was surprised by the mob mentality. One of my Lubavitcher friends — also a conservative Republican — said the same thing. It was more mob mentality than deep discussion. I grew up in an intellectual — albeit liberal — Jewish world. And I’ve never seen such slavish devotion to ideas. No one even wanted to hear another possibility other than Shapiro’s view of the world. And it was that group-think that scared me the most. It’s what caused me to confront Shapiro, and to write this article. And my only hope is that this time I’m not shouting into the wind.