In 2016, some prominent Jewish intellectuals began warning that the doctrine of “intersectionality” so popular on college campuses could easily turn into an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Their argument was that encouraging students to “connect the dots” between fundamentally unrelated social problems — between, say, sexual violence in America and political violence in Gaza — would induce in them the sort of paranoid, bad-people-everywhere attitude on which anti-Semitism is known to thrive, leading to widespread animus among the elite.
That prophecy has since come true in a number of places, most notably the Chicago Dyke March last June at which three women were accosted because their rainbow-colored stars of David had “made people feel unsafe.” The incident efficiently debunked one of the more insidious myths propagated by la Resistance, who tend to portray America’s bigots as the exclusive provenance of the alt-right — as Nazis rather than Jacobins, Spencerites rather than Stalinists.
But another, more subtle form of anti-Semitism has, for the most part, gone uncriticized by the usual watchdogs. Prejudice is a cultural phenomenon as much as a political one, and the anti-Jewish stigma we see today attaches not just to particular nations but also particular customs, whose practitioners are in some ways more maligned, more misunderstood than they were a few decades ago. Indeed, if the so-called “new anti-Semitism” represents an attack on Jewish statehood, this new, new anti-Semitism represents an attack on Jewish values. Here’s why.
According to the left-of-left narrative gaining ground in many universities, Yale being no exception, social inequality begins not in legislatures or cabinets but in classes, dorms and dining halls, the spaces that structure young adult interaction for most of our governing elite. Through them, privilege is gradually ossified and imbricated so that by the time students go forth into the wider world, the dice have already been cast, the bad norms generated, the bad people empowered.
So to really fight back against oppression, the story goes, one must first recognize the seminar table as a site of political struggle — as something to be critiqued and cauterized and, in due time, conquered.
This quasi-imperial impulse is what drives accusations that white men “take up too much space” in class discussions and the subsequent tendency to conflate reasoned disagreement with outright disrespect. Often it manifests as a vague disdain for confrontational debate styles, the “yes, but” legalism with which many culture warriors — myself included — are prone to respond to personal narratives and experiences.
You can find essays and think pieces and the occasional Twitter tantrum bemoaning all of the above, but these polemics tend to give short shrift to campus radicalism’s notional goals: to create a society in which everyone feels appreciated, valued and heard.
Except Jews. The combative, “white male” argument culture under fire from the left is in fact a quintessentially Semitic trait, taught by Jewish parents and professors and practiced every Friday over Shabbos dinners.
This culture is tolerant of spit-fire interruptions and compulsive hand-raising, within reason, and can sometimes bear a superficial resemblance to the loud, lax-bro entitlement of prep school jocks, whose tendency to speak over women and minorities is well-documented.
But the similarities pretty much end there, because when Jewish debaters disagree, they take themselves to be engaging in a shared project — a sportive, sardonic sociality that is above all a sign of respect, a way of taking opposing views seriously but not personally. Jews, writes Leon Wieseltier, have “an almost erotic relationship to controversy.” Like Jacob, we prefer to wrestle with God instead of appeasing Him, to poke and prod and blaspheme before we let orthodoxy get the upper hand.
And to dismiss that project as narrow- or close-minded — as white or as male — is to evince a certain ignorance of one’s own. It’s to mistake respect for resentment, passion for chutzpah; it’s to caricature pluralism as prejudice, crowding out difference under the guise of inclusion; and it’s to replace one dialectical regime with another, in which a very specific group of people are told that their customs, their ways of speaking, have no place in seminar.
Which isn’t necessarily the worst sin. Talmudic debate norms take time to learn and might not be suitable for Goyim-heavy settings.
But if you’re willing to entertain the idea that a beleaguered minority’s discursive habits should be jettisoned in the name of progress, you should also be willing to concede that true multiculturalism is probably impossible when deciding between rival codes of etiquette: Sooner or later, a hegemonic patois will be imposed, whether that’s Yiddish haggling or lived-experience Kumbaya-ism or whatever strange synthesis of the two currently passes for collegiate argument culture.
And as far as argument cultures go, you could do worse than one that urges all people, no matter their sex, color or creed, to lean into controversy and become a bit less gentle — or Gentile — a bit less reserved, a bit less likely to take offense — a bit more Jewish.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .