fbpx
Thursday, September 24, 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.”

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

Sing it to us Mo! — A Poem for Torah portion Ha’azinu

Remember the days of old; reflect upon 
the years of generations I’m as nostalgic as they come. I remember walking around my high school during the first...

Boston’s 118-Year-Old Jewish Advocate Ceases Publication

"It is with tears in our eyes that we concluded that our decision to suspend publication is a sad but necessary response to this crisis.”

RBG and the Lone Dissent

Ginsburg’s legacy is that brilliance, tenacity and vision matter.

The Yom Kippur Sermon Stephen Wise Didn’t Give

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of the 1930s and 1940s, was a renowned orator who did not shy away...

More Restrictive Lockdown Set for Israel as Coronavirus Cases Remain at Record Levels

The restrictions are expected to last at least two weeks.

Living Life According to Justice Ginsburg

We should be obligated to take RBG’s legacy with us into our daily lives — which is in and of itself a very Jewish idea.

The Pandemic Made the Road Rocky, But I Still Love It

Comedy, like any job, can keep you young and vital if you enjoy doing it. Most comics are on a lockdown hiatus. How do we stay sane?

The Sweetness of Yom Kippurs Past

Sharon Gomperts: My family is visiting the apartment building in Israel where my uncles and their families live. I awake in the middle of...

Ha’azinu

I’ve always said go out with a song. Let it be the last taste in their mouth the culmination of the experience. This one’s a little bit...

Jewish MSNBC Commentator: ‘What Is the Difference Between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump?’

"I’m not saying there’s a Holocaust, but when you look at the tactics, that is where we are right now.”

Culture

The Sweetness of Yom Kippurs Past

Sharon Gomperts: My family is visiting the apartment building in Israel where my uncles and their families live. I awake in the middle of...

IKAR’s Yizkor Memorial Garden: A Space for Memory and Community Connection

This year, as with everything relating to the High Holy Days in the era of COVID-19, the space that IKAR carves out for grief had to be rethought.

Watching the Wall Between Church and State Crumble

A review of the book “The Religion Clauses: The Case for Separating Church and State.”

Albert Dabah Tackles Delicate Family Material in ‘Extra Innings’

He said it was his way of honoring their lives.

Latest Articles
Latest

Sing it to us Mo! — A Poem for Torah portion Ha’azinu

Remember the days of old; reflect upon 
the years of generations I’m as nostalgic as they come. I remember walking around my high school during the first...

Boston’s 118-Year-Old Jewish Advocate Ceases Publication

"It is with tears in our eyes that we concluded that our decision to suspend publication is a sad but necessary response to this crisis.”

RBG and the Lone Dissent

Ginsburg’s legacy is that brilliance, tenacity and vision matter.

The Yom Kippur Sermon Stephen Wise Didn’t Give

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of the 1930s and 1940s, was a renowned orator who did not shy away...

More Restrictive Lockdown Set for Israel as Coronavirus Cases Remain at Record Levels

The restrictions are expected to last at least two weeks.

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

Pandemic Times Episode 89: Honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections on the life and legacy of a Jewish and American hero. How do we manage our lives...

A Rosh HaSchitt’s Creek Sameach to You!

How long has this pandemic been? This week we're giving a big Shofar Wave to 5780 as it exits the building, reviewing some Jewy...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x