A new group called the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values recently published an open letter arguing, in strong if abstract terms, that current understandings of social justice are antithetical to Jewish and liberal values. The letter—whose 49 original signatories include Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and other critics of contemporary progressivism—defends free expression and opposes the concept of “collective moral guilt” on the basis of identity. While the letter has hundreds of additional signatories, it is unclear to what extent American Jews share the vision of liberalism it represents. A Pew study just affirmed earlier findings about Jews voting Democrat, but also found that most consider “working for justice and equality in society” as “essential to their Jewish identity.” Most American Jews are liberal, and long have been, but “liberal” is an evolving and contested concept. What does an intramural debate within the American-Jewish left say about it—and the state of American liberalism broadly?

For Cathy Young, contemporary understandings of social justice—established around concepts like racial affinity groups, rigid oppression hierarchies, and the claim that offensive speech causes harm—are bad for American Jews and for liberalism. Young, an associate editor with Arc Digital, says she objects as a matter of principle to any stifling of dissent. She also sees today’s progressivism as ignoring, and at times furthering, anti-Semitism. That said, she argues, center-right Jewish proponents of free expression should be careful to apply the same standards to speech about Israel that they disagree with as they do to speech that members of other marginalized groups can find objectionable.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: You were one of the original signatories of “A letter to our fellow Jews on equality and liberal values,” as well as of the Harper’s open letter it was based on. The letter in Harper’s, which I also signed, addressed the liberal value of free expression. Why do you think a specifically Jewish version of that statement became necessary?

Cathy Young: Every extra statement for free expression helps. The Jewish community is visible as part of the intellectual discourse in North America and Europe, on both the right and the left. The reminder that the values of the Jewish community are basically the values of liberal debate, and the exchange of ideas, is a valuable one.

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