If you tend to find yourself on the Right side of the political aisle, you have undoubtedly been beaten over the head over the past few years about the importance of free speech. The freedom to express yourself is at the very heart of a functional society, and anyone who looks for ways to skirt this fundamental principle is not only attacking a basic concept in American thought, but is also harming others in two major ways. First, when an unpopular opinion is silenced, people who find themselves agreeing with that opinion are galvanized to play the victim. “See!” they shout from their proverbial soap boxes, “the other side cannot argue with us so they try to silence us.” While this is a strong reason to not silence dissenting opinions, it is not entirely relevant to this week’s conversation.
The second, and in our case far more drastic consequence in silencing dissenting opinions, is that if a person is subjected to that stance for the first time, he would have no understanding of how to react to it. Take the subject of abortion. If a pro-lifer has never been subjected to the pro-choice argument (or vice versa), how will he or she ever learn to react to the other side when the inevitable dissent is shown to them, if they have never had to think about it before?
While the issue of censorship has a dramatic effect on civil discourse, it has an even more dire effect in our own little circle of Orthodox Jewry. We saw this play out over the last month in the most horrific ways. If you don’t know the story of the public downfall of a popular author (who will henceforth be referred to as [name redacted]) by now, firstly, how are you here? Secondly, put this article down now and ask the person sitting next to you, then pick up the paper again and continue reading.
For years, Orthodox Jews have been hesitant to talk about the subject of the type of behavior that this author was involved in, at least publicly. Jewish newspapers and magazines are hesitant to approach it, and even in this very paper, the certain words that are generally used to describe these actions are censored. In a recent article, I had to refer to an alleged criminal for his charges of “assault.” That’s not what he was wanted for. He did not simply assault the victim; what he did was much worse. We have this stoppage in our brains that if we are too risqué with our language, we can’t consider ourselves a frum publication anymore.
Moreover, young men and women are shielded from these concepts that we are not allowed to discuss openly for far too long in our society. They are nowhere near adequately informed of what is out there in the world. As teenagers, many of us were/are too naïve to understand what to look for, because our schools do not give our children the education around it. Likewise, parents may not want to do that particular educating for fear that their children may discuss it with their friends at school and get in trouble for it.
If it is at all possible, I was hoping that the one glimmer of positivity to come out of the [name redacted] story is that maybe now our community will wake up and allow the necessary education to begin. Our children may now begin to be educated on what to look out for. And those hopes were increased when a particular school published an article by one if its students about [name redacted] in their newsletter. “Wow,” I thought. “Finally we are going to address this head-on.” But those previously high hopes were dashed when the same school released a letter to parents that stated, “Sharing these discussions with our children can definitely create deep seated (sic) damage in their precious and delicate minds and neshamos.”
And we come crashing back. At first, I asked myself if it was a joke. Sadly, it was not. Despite the publicity of this story, schools are still trying to protect their students’ “delicate minds” instead of preparing them for what can possibly happen to their delicate bodies. We’re back to pretending, like now that [name redacted] is gone, there aren’t a dozen others out there just like him. Perhaps they do not have the stature that [name redacted] had, but their lasting damage hurts just the same.
Now, you may be wondering why in an article about censorship I left out the name of the school in the above story. For that, I have two reasons. Firstly, printing the name of the school would probably not be very productive. Secondly, and more importantly, that school could be any institution in Orthodox Judaism. Until more attention to these issues is allowed to be shared publicly and without censorship, the victim list will continue to grow. Those who seek to commit these atrocities will view the sweeping of this story under the rug as permission to proceed. (This is not to say that simply discussing this openly will eliminate the problem, but there will certainly be fewer victims.)
In fact, this article was initially written for last week’s edition, but due to the content of some of the words I wanted to use, as well as mentioning [name redacted] by name, I needed to rewrite sections of this piece in order for it to get printed. Let’s be clear: I have written articles in this very publication about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Jeffrey Epstein, all of whom committed similar or worse atrocities than [name redacted]. But when it comes to [name redacted], that is where we draw the line. His name is given the Haman treatment. In fact, this coming Purim, write his name on the sole of your shoe to erase his memory. That’s the goal – to pretend he never existed.
It is time for our institutions to discuss all social issues openly and honestly. The time for turning a blind eye to the problem is over. Enough is enough. Other platitudes about ending this ridiculousness. If you understand why free speech is so important, but refuse to apply that to helping to eliminate one of the worst and vilest problems in our community, you are allowing the problem to grow. You are helping nobody.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.