A way of coexisting in an imperfect world
Reb Yitzchak Goldman, a reader from the Jerusalem suburb of Beitar, writes:
Although I always enjoy his writing, I disagree with Eytan Kobre’s stance on the apology issued by the New York Times for its anti-Semitic cartoon. His claim that by not accepting their apology “we’re sending a message that no amount of contrition or amends will matter,” is not a problem as he suggests, but actually a good thing.
The truth is, it makes no sense that an apology has any mitigating effect on anti-Semitic beliefs. Anti-Semitic behavior is not a mistake that a person makes, but an expression of deeply entrenched core beliefs that won’t be plucked out of a person just because he says he’s sorry…. Do we think for one minute that the New York Times would have issued an apology had it not been for the financial implications of an angry readership? Acquiescing to this fake, cosmetic cover-up of deep-seated loathing for our people is not doing our nation or ourselves any favors.
What we should do is recognize who we are and who they are — and follow Chazal’s instructions to do teshuvah when surrounded by the institutions of hatred that Hashem sends us b’chol dor va’dor. We shouldn’t be trying to change the New York Times. We should be trying to change ourselves.
I’m grateful to Yitzchak Goldman for his critique. Incisive feedback like his keeps a writer from intellectual laziness. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to explain more fully my thoughts on an issue of some complexity and nuance.
Reb Yitzchak and I agree about the most important thing, which is the need to view current events through a Torah prism, as gedolei Torah have taught us to do. And his view, that we need to take anti-Semitism as a wake-up call to “follow Chazal’s instructions to do teshuvah,” and that “we shouldn’t be trying to change [others, but] to change ourselves,” is one I’ve advanced often and in a variety of contexts in this column.
Indeed, just last week I wrote here that we need “to see beyond the flesh-and-blood culprits to the Yad Hashem that, the Torah teaches, is the Real Mover behind unfolding events.” But it’s precisely that view that compelled me to write about L’Affair Cartoon as I did. It enables us to avert the focus from solely one of outrage at the Times and redirect it toward how we as Torah Jews need to respond, first and foremost to our Creator, but also to the Times and to the watching world.
Why, indeed, did the Times respond as it did? I don’t believe it had much, if anything, to do with “the financial implications of an angry readership.” I’m not aware of any widespread grassroots efforts to boycott the paper or cancel subscriptions over this cartoon, and the various attempts to do so in the past have been uniformly meager and unsuccessful. There were various individual expressions of harsh censure from within the Jewish community, but there wasn’t an avalanche of universal criticism under which the Times had no choice but to buckle. The Times acted before there was even time for such a reaction to coalesce.
The truth is that we still today live in a civil society, one that still adheres to certain standards of acceptable discourse and action, of what can and cannot and must not be expressed, regardless of what one thinks and feels internally. This unspoken societal compact is what allows a society like ours to function despite the existence of factions within it that are deeply at odds with each other, and its existence is particularly crucial for a historically vulnerable minority like the Jews. It has frayed in recent times (the reasons for which require a separate discussion), and that’s cause for great concern, but most citizens and institutions of society are still parties to it.
The Times, too, is part of that compact, and even it has red lines of propriety beyond which it will not cross. And, it seems to me, when this cartoon appeared, the newspaper’s owners and editors quickly realized that the approval of this image by one of its editors had crossed well beyond such a line, necessitating a retraction. Its initial response was slow and tepid, which is not unusual when organizations or individuals are first confronted with a developing crisis.
Within days, however, the newspaper took virtually every step that we would expect of any media organization that did not have the Times’ problematic history regarding Jews and Israel. It published a complete apology, including a self-indictment that hit on all the points that needed to be made; it allowed its own opinion columnist to mount a truly stinging attack on it; and it disciplined the offending editor, canceled the subscription service that provided the image, and instituted internal training to address the issue.
In doing so, the Times upheld its end of the above-mentioned societal compact. The point I was making in my column was that, for our sake and society’s sake, we need to uphold our end of it, too, which calls not for celebrating the Times’ apology, but merely acknowledging it. And it certainly requires not using wildly irresponsible rhetoric, casting the newspaper as irredeemably evil, replete with invoking Nazi associations.
To do so is to blow up this fragile compact, which is wrong and dangerous. It’s wrong because we must act before Hashem and be seen by the world as fair-minded, not vindictive, as promoting coexistence, not self-righteousness. And it’s dangerous because it tells the Times and other parties to the compact that there’s no point in adhering to it any longer, freeing them of its constraints to our detriment.
I agree with Reb Yitzchak that apologies don’t usually mitigate long-held beliefs, anti-Semitic or otherwise. But apologies can be important, as this one was, for the fact that they maintain the societal compact, perpetuating important norms of speech and behavior. We might even think of the societal compact as a charade of sorts, in which we ignore what others’ thoughts and beliefs might really be and instead take them at their word. But thinking adults know that in life, whether in marriage, workplace, or society, charades in which we refrain from “telling it like it is” are necessary too, as a way of coexisting in an imperfect world.
Consider: Chazal teach that Eisav sonei l’Yaakov is a historical axiom. Does that mean we ought not to strive to maintain good, productive relations with our neighbors and coworkers and government officials? Of course not. That principle may tell us how others feel about us on a subconscious level or even how they may speak about us in darkened pubs and political backrooms, and we must take precautions accordingly. But we dare not act upon it by openly indicting fellow citizens in our host societies as closet anti-Semites.
Of course, even charades have their limits; it’s ludicrous to suggest engaging in one with the likes of Der Stürmer founder and publisher Julius Streicher, yemach shemo v’zichro. But, notwithstanding the rabbi who paskened for himself that the Times deserves to be publicly dubbed “Der New York Stürmer,” that is not the case here. Bret Stephens wrote of the “almost torrential criticism of Israel and the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism, including by this paper,” but also that having “been with the Times for two years… I’m certain that the charge that the institution is in any way anti-Semitic is a calumny.”
Commentary editor John Podhoretz likewise opined that it’s “likely that this editor has not had a conversation in years with anyone who did not think Benjamin Netanyahu was a monster and therefore was fair game…. Indeed, the very idea that the Jewish people are only a few generations removed from near-destruction and that a certain degree of sensitivity is required in depicting them may not ever have occurred to him.”
If people want to criticize the Times for failing to renounce its progressive views on Israel and history of biased reporting, by all means, do so. Better yet, arrange a meeting with the newspaper to discuss these matters, as a group of Jewish clergymen did in the cartoon’s aftermath.
But contrast Israel’s US ambassador, from his comfortable perch, calling the Times a “cesspool” and demonstrators outside its offices shouting about “Jewish blood on its hands,” with Agudath Israel of America’s decision to withhold a critical press release following the Times’ apology. Which would you say is more responsible?
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 762. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org