January 19, 2020

Should We Debate Extremists?

Over thirty years ago now, Rabbi Avi Weiss staged a curious affair. He invited Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz to debate Rabbi Meir Kahane at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for an all-encompassing disputation about the roles of Jews and Israel. It was, and remains, a fascinating display of contrasts: a liberal law professor and a reactionary politician.  In his opening remarks, Dershowitz responded to those who criticized him for debating Kahane:

I am debating Rabbi Meir Kahane because too few blacks debated and responded to Rev. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. I am debating Rabbi Kahane because virtually no Arabs are willing to debate Yasser Arafat. I think it is imperative that the world understand not only that the vast majority of Jews repudiate Rabbi Kahane’s views, but also why we repudiate those views.

Dershowitz’s words are still so relevant in today’s cultural climate. In addition to explaining one’s core position, debating extremists can, if done with precision, point out the ugliness of violent extremists. And if one has the courage of one’s conviction, they can truly undermine the inherent repugnance of the extreme view. Douglas Murray, founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion in the United Kingdom, writer for the Spectator, and currently Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, is a gay, atheist, and neoconservative defender of Western institutions. He accepted a debate, nevertheless, with a radical Muslim group that supported terrorism, subjecting himself to verbal and physical intimidation. Afterward, he stated that free speech is not an easy process, and that many audiences would be hostile. Yet, Murray believes that some audience members may be affected in a positive way: “Even if it is just one member of the audience who is receptive to the anti-totalitarian possibility it is vital to do this. It is the reason why I debate.” In addition, he noted that debate brings out just how violent extremists are:

Yesterday showed why bringing them out in the open and challenging their ideas is necessary. It reminds the government, the press and British citizens of the true nature of these fundamentalist thugs who are not just going to disappear. Not since Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) have we seen intimidation like this on the streets of London. Like the BUF, they will resort to violence the moment their fascist views are challenged.

The failure to debate, or at least debunk, outrageous positions may be perilous. In 2004, Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was smeared by the “Swift Boat” campaign that attacked Kerry’s experience as a Vietnam War veteran. Although the campaign was funded by an extremist and had absolutely no validity, Kerry’s reluctance to face down the charges (and most likely his underestimating its effect) hurt his campaign, built a minor annoyance into a major problem, and probably contributed to his defeat.

Looking beyond political debate, scientists also have been frustrated by the persistence of skepticism toward the theory of Evolution (approximately 42 percent today). To some, such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History Museum, scientists should not debate “belief systems” precisely because they are “not science.” He believes that bringing religion into science class is “undermining what science is and how it works.”

Bill Nye, known to millions as “the Science Guy,” takes a differing approach, and acknowledges a place for religion. In 2014, Nye debated evolution with Kevin Ham, the President and CEO of Answers in Genesis, the organization that operates the Creation Museum in  Kentucky, which shows dinosaurs and humans cohabiting the Earth no longer than 6,000 years ago. To Nye, debate represents a continuing process:

A person hears the arguments or is exposed to the arguments. He or she is not going to change his or her mind immediately. It takes several times through, so I hope this will plant a seed—that it will be a start of people discovering the fundamental idea in all of life science.

To Nye, the denial of evolution is the denial of the scientific method. This repudiation will effect humanity’s “ability to generate energy, to build cars, to fight diseases, to regulate traffic.”

Though difficult, in considering whether to debate extremists, one should consider what can be gained versus what harmful effects might be generated by giving publicity to charismatic fanatics whose spinning of half-truths might be difficult to immediately refute. In those cases, one study has indicated that a debunking strategy might work better.

Engaging with someone of a completely different ideology does not need to be viewed as validating their views. In fact, Jewish law suggests the opposite: “shtika k’hodaah” (silence is like consent). It is not engaging but disengaging that is viewed as validating. If not for persuading others, we are to speak up at least to not appear as agreeing with false contentions and harmful propositions. There is a lot at stake in the marketplace of ideas. One must cultivate the complex sagacity to determine when to ignore faulty marginal ideas and when to openly confront them. It is not an obvious matter with universal principles.

Today, each of us can find ourselves in narrow places of conformity and agreement. Sometimes we must step out of our comfort zone to learn about those who view things differently from us. Even further, there are specific times, we may choose to debate fundamentalists and extremists. It is not an easy decision and one must ensure one’s safety, physical and emotional, in the process. In the famous Biblical story of the Exodus, Moses could have merely waged war and led a slave uprising. But rather, he approached Pharoah and engaged him in the pursuit of justice. He looked evil in the face without flinching or backing down from his own holy convictions. Thus, we have to trust the ability of truth and moral values to triumph over violent extremism if we are to suffuse holiness into our everyday lives.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”