What Do We Mean When We Talk About Free Speech?

Oct. 9, 2020

By ZACK BABINS

Picture a large Canadian university with a law school. The school is set to offer a directorship to an academic with a long history of pro-Israel scholarship and activism in Zionist causes.

At the last moment, a Canadian Muslim – a federal judge who, along with his family, have been massive donors to this school, likely in the millions – calls the school’s fundraising team. From that point on, negotiations with the Zionist academic are cancelled and the position is somehow “no longer available.”

What would we as a community do? 

Certainly, this school would be labeled antisemitic. It would make the Top 10 list of every “antisemitic school where Jewish students aren’t safe.” We would lament the decline of academia and people would warn their children to stay away from that “Jew-hating school.”

The influencers and organizations that make a living defending Israel would see a spike in donations.

Eventually, the right-wing pundits, Jewish and Gentile, would cry that free speech is about listening to arguments and ideas that you don’t like, and would wonder whether today’s students are so soft (and antisemitic) that they could not tolerate a Zionist Jewish teacher.

This isn’t a hypothetical. We just changed some parts of speech.

Explosive recent media reports alleged that Justice David Spiro, a Tax Court of Canada judge, megadonor to the University of Toronto, and former board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, had improperly interfered in the hiring of Prof. Valentina Azarova.

Azarova, who is not Palestinian but sympathetic to Palestinians, and more than occasionally focuses her academic work on the Palestinian cause, was reportedly quite close to landing a position as director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program. According to the school, the program isn’t hiring a director at all.

Law professor Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, resigned from the board in protest.

The Canadian Judicial Council is now considering multiple complaints about Spiro’s conduct. And over 1,000 lawyers, academics, and activists have signed a petition asking U of T’s law school to apologize and reinstate the job.

And in an open letter to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, a slew of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said they are “deeply concerned” that U of T’s law school dean responded to “external pressure, following the objection of a law school donor to Dr. Azarova’s work on international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine context.”

One would think that the champions of free speech would be all over this one. But the brave “marketplace of ideas” folks, who have no qualms defending transphobes, homophobes, racists and white nationalists under the banner of free speech, are nowhere to be found. Similarly, those who argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” just can’t be bothered to defend an academic who, by their standards, has had her right to free speech violated.

One op-ed submitted by a Jewish organization claimed that “a long history of one-sided critiques of Israel” justified these events. What if the shoe was on the other foot? If a long history of “one-sided activism” surrounding Israel can disqualify you from a job, well, I’ve got some bad news for a lot of my friends who went to Jewish day school, summer camp or synagogue. 

I haven’t even mentioned yet how damaging this move – which any PR consultant could tell you would not remain private for longer than a week – may be to Jewish students who are actually on campus, who will now face slurs and tropes about Jewish power and influence.

Frankly, I’ve never been a free speech evangelist. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but it must be restrained by reasonable limits to protect marginalized communities from hatred and violence. History bears out that hate speech almost never remains “just words.” 

We either care about free speech or we don’t. We either care about academic freedom or we don’t. We either care about outside political interference in our universities – including the “outside agitators” that Hasbara organizations love to remind you are sent to campuses to scuttle BDS motions and anti-Israel campaigns – or we don’t.

To paraphrase the great “Rabbi” Jon Stewart, if you don’t stick to your values when they’re used by your opponents, you don’t have values. You have hobbies.

We have to make a decision – a microcosm of the same decision Israel has to make when it attempts to administer a democratic state that prioritizes one religion that’s necessary to the idea of a Jewish democracy.

Does Zionism – specifically, right-wing, tribal, expansionist, Revisionist Zionism that leaves no room for the humanity of Palestinians – supersede liberal democratic values like free speech? Are you prepared to defend Israel, no matter the cost? 

In other words, we must decide whether we are prepared to sacrifice our souls. I’m not prepared to do that, and I’m not alone.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.

The Seth Rogen Drama: We Need Honest Talk About Israel

Aug. 3, 2020 – By ZACK BABINS

Last week, Canadian Jewish actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen, while promoting his new movie, An American Pickle, the saga of a poor Yiddish immigrant to New York City who is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years (based on a quirky story by Simon Rich, available here), discussed his Jewish identity and feelings about Israel.

You may have read about it: Rogen rejected an inherent link between Jewish identity and Zionism, called the idea of Jewish statehood the product of “an antiquated thought process,” and expressed dissatisfaction with the ways he – the son of two kibbutzniks and Jewish summer camp alumnus– was educated when it came to Israel. 

I may disagree with Seth on a few points – I happen to think that as long as everyone else has a state, we should probably have one too – but this much is true: The way that our community teaches young Jews about Israel, Palestine – and the conflict just doesn’t square with historical records – and there is an instinct to exile and dismiss the Jews who ask frank and difficult questions about Israel.

The realities of the Aliyah movements, the British Mandate, the War of Independence, the wars of 1967 and 1973, intifadas, settlements, and countless failed peace processes, are too messy for one op-ed and one day. But in our day schools and summer camps, and our primary educational programs, they are simplified to create a vision of Israel that is blameless, perfect and miraculous – a vision far more naïve and utopian than even Herzl’s. 

“We took a deserted land and made the desert bloom.” “We (out of the goodness of our own hearts) withdrew from Gaza and just look at what they did there.” “We accepted the Partition plan and they didn’t.”  

It wasn’t until my final year of university, and my decision to write a thesis on the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, that I – who had attended Hebrew school for nine years, was active in the local Jewish fraternity, president of Hillel, and had just participated in a Birthright Israel trip – learned, for instance, that the Israeli acceptance of the 1947 partition plan was far from unanimous, with Menachem Begin and the Revisionist Zionist camp calling it “illegitimate.” 

During that year of research and writing, I encountered many pieces of information that directly and forcefully disproved many of the ideas that I had been raised with. I confronted the reality of a real country making political decisions and strategic military calculations.

I felt lied to. On many occasions, I was mere sentences away from abandoning my emotional stake in Israel altogether. On some days, the only thing stopping me from washing my hands of the whole messy falafel was a mentor who encouraged me to embrace the nuances and test my values against them.

Any conversation about the Jewish future has to include a frank, reasonable discussion about the role of Israel and its ability to represent Jews around the world. It is unsustainable for us, as a people, to continue mythologizing a real, complex place and exiling those of us who express dissatisfaction with realities once we learn them. 

After all of that, after the threat of annexation, the continued attack of the rabbinate on progressive values, and much more, I remain a Zionist for this reason: 

I am a Jew, and a Jew in a world that is dangerous and hostile to Jews: Israel, for all its faults, remains a place where Jews can be safe as Jews, an increasing rarity in 2020. While I am relatively safe as a Canadian Jew, I know far too much Jewish history to think that this safety is forever guaranteed.

But a small part of me, in the back of my head, knows that there is a second reason. I remain a Zionist because anything else risks alienation and condemnation. From my friends, my family, the community I grew up and worked in. From the Jewish Twittersphere. 

I’ve been to Israel three times and I’d like to visit again in the future. In pre-coronavirus times, Israel has barred entry to, among others, Diaspora Jewish BDS activists. I’m not interested in taking a 12-hour flight only to get deported from a country that claims to be my homeland. 

My Zionism is nuanced. It is critical, it is measured, and I do my best to keep it in line with history and the values with which I judge every other political issue in my life. But it is not the only thing that makes me a Jew. Far from it. 

I’ve long been party to conversations – and handwringing – about the Jewish future. For a long time, assimilation and intermarriage were the boogeyman. Now, it’s insufficient (right-wing, reactionary, unquestioning) Zionism that gets one labeled as a traitor to the Jews. 

The truth is, when we lie to our kids, they resent the lie as much as they resent us. The truth is, to ensure a Jewish future, we have to tell the truth about the Jewish past. And that means a conversation about Israel that’s rooted in reality and history, not myths and utopias. These questions are not going away, and will only get louder. The truth is, we ignore them – and dismiss young Jews with serious concerns – at our own risk.


Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.

BABINS: Judaism will survive social media

By ZACK BABINS

Let’s reframe the question. 

You hear it, always a problem, all the time. The 2013 Pew study (titled “A Portrait of American Jews” – though it’s become so widely cited in this discussion that I could just call it “the Pew study” and would be generally understood) confirmed what some have suspected for a long time – young Jews, to the naked eye, just aren’t interested in Judaism anymore. 

We’ve survived pogroms and persecution, oppression and genocide, discrimination and terror. We’ve survived the Romans and the Babylonians, the Nazis and the Soviets, and everyone else who tried to wipe us out. But Facebook and smartphones are going to destroy Judaism.

Shul attendance among Gen Y and Z is in decline. Day school enrollment is declining. Intermarriage – the boogeyman of Jewish assimilation – is up. 

Put simply, we’re losing what being Jewish is all about. So they tell us. 

A few quick points about those issues, before we reframe. 

I think if we wish to keep these institutions alive – as the handwringing seems to indicate – we need to examine why they are in decline. 

The Jewish middle class, along with the rest of the middle class, is being financially squeezed like never before. Wages are stagnating while the cost of living rises. Synagogue membership is expensive, and Jewish day school tuition is, generally speaking, costlier than a university degree. If we want these institutions to stay alive, we need to make them affordable to the people who are increasingly unable to afford it. 

Another quick point: we need to address how we discuss Judaism in our own homes. You cannot lament the collapse of synagogues then attend 3 days a year, for less than 2 hours. If you, in front of your children, justify your Judaism with the language of obligation, don’t act surprised when your children don’t feel joyful about Judaism. 

But, like I said, I wanted to reframe the question. 

Because Judaism, and the Jewish people, are not going away. What we are seeing is a slow and gradual redefining of what Jewishness is and means. 

It’s happened before. The definition of Jewishness has been in a state of near-constant evolution throughout our history.   

Until the Temple was destroyed, Judaism took the form of (largely) animal sacrifices and burnt offerings. Rabbinic Judaism, the kind we practice in the West, developed as a panicked, last ditch effort to save Judaism altogether.

The Hasidic movement only arose around 300 years ago. The nationalistic Zionism that led to the creation of the physical state of Israel only began in earnest in the late 19th Century. 

These massive synagogues with thousands of members, and these days schools, would be virtually unrecognizable to the majority of our ancestors. They are a product of 20th century Judaism and if they fade and fall, they will be replaced by something else. 

The question of what being a Jew means is in flux, and it always has been. 

Today, Jewish identity among young people takes many forms. Some of us “find religion” and join a Hasidic movement and some of us resentfully accompany their parents to shul, participating as minimally as possible “until we’ve been here long enough to go home.” 

Some young Jews take up a community spirit and join Jewish fraternities or sororities, leadership in a campus Hillel, or any of the other alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. Some avoid organizations entirely. 

Some young Jews take the values inherent in Judaism and turn it into activism. Some of us fight against anti-Semitism, some of us fight against racism, some of us fight for economic equality. Some of us fight for Israel, some of us try and hold Israel accountable, and yes, some of us fight against Israel. All rooted in a deep Jewish identity. 

And yes, some of us just like bagels and smoked meat, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Spaceballs and summer camp. Some of us are culturally Jewish. 

The question, in truth, is one for you, dear reader. The question is not “will Judaism survive the millennials?” and it never has been. The question for you is “what do I want Judaism look like in 500 years, and how will I do my part to make that happen?”

We will survive, we always do. It’s up to us to decide how.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.

BABINS: Why I Marched

By ZACK BABINS

On Saturday, May 30, I walked from my apartment in downtown Toronto to Christie Pits Park (it took me over an hour on foot) to join with thousands in protest of the (recent) murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her 24th floor balcony during an interaction with the Toronto Police, the details of which are still forthcoming, and far too many other Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). 

As I approached Christie, I saw hundreds of people walking the same way, carrying signs and, yes, wearing masks. 

Before I begin, please do not dismiss this protest as “dangerous in the time of COVID.” The organizers of the demonstration made very clear that they would be making it as safe as possible – masks and hand sanitizer were available – and nearly everyone I saw was wearing a mask. A friend of mine marched with her bicycle basket full of water bottles and hand sanitizer taped to the side. 

Was it as safe as sitting at home, in the dark, covered in hand sanitizer? No, but we’re trying to do something here. 

The significance of starting this protest in Christie Pits was not lost on me, though I’m not sure it was fully clear to many present. 

In 1933, Christie Pits was the site of a long and brutal riot following a baseball game between the predominantly Jewish and Italian Harbord Playground team and the predominantly White St. Peter’s Church team. After the final out, the Toronto Swastika Club, which, I assure you, was a real entity in 1933, unveiled a massive blanket with, you guessed it, a swastika on it. The Jewish and Italian players rushed them in anger, and thus began a six-hour riot. 

Solidarity with the oppressed, and fighting against fascism, racism and hatred are values baked into the history of Christie Pits Park. 

So why did I leave my comfortable apartment, and my comfortable existence, to potentially endanger myself. 

Not only is the Big Rona still a concern, but similar demonstrations all over the United States have become violent, with the police – who are much more heavily armed and armored than the protesters themselves – clashing with protesters and firing at journalists. The Toronto Police officers present, on the other hand, did not come heavily armored, and were stoic and cautious. This could easily have not been the case. 

So why did I march? Why did I risk it for something that doesn’t target me? 

I marched for my friends, and their families: people of colour who have been targeted, stalked, harassed and worse, for no reason but the colour of their skin. I marched to help them carve out another inch of a world where that is not the case.  

I marched because I can risk it, because I have the privilege to not be targeted. I’m a short, white-skinned man, and I will never be at the same risk, for doing the same thing as black and Indigenous peoples in this country. I am not seen as a threat to law enforcement. If I commit a crime, I am much more likely to be arrested and face trial rather than be killed. 

I marched because I am Jewish. “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live in the land that G-d has given you” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and I marched because I am commanded to pursue justice. I marched because we are taught that to take a life is to destroy a world, and I’m not interested in world destroying. 

I marched because even though I was scared of being exposed to the coronavirus and because I was terrified of police backlash, we marched for the exact same reason we locked down – to save lives. Pikuach nefesh. We locked down our society to hopefully save lives from a virus. We marched to hopefully save lives from police brutality and racism.  

This pandemic is a moment for our society to examine itself and ask not “when can we get back to normal” but instead, ask the question “how can we come out of this better than we went into it?” We need to make sure that the society we locked down to save is better for all of us, and that nobody, nobody gets left behind. 

I marched so that hopefully, one inch at a time, we stop leaving people behind.


Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.

Bread is worth making. We Should Continue After Quarantine.

Bread ingredients are scarce because everyone is trying out breadmaking – you should continue after the quarantine.

By ZACK BABINS

In mid-March, in what seems like 1,000 years ago, I called my father. It was just before every political leader and health official in Canada told us we should stay inside for the foreseeable future. I had refrained from hoarding toilet paper, and now I was running out. Could my dad help?

Soon, the same thing happened with flour and yeast. I make my own bread every few weeks, and my challah has occasionally been called “the best I’ve ever had. But now, my cupboard was bare.

All of you were getting in the way of my challah. 

We all know what’s been going on. People are making bread now because they’ve got time on their hands. Stuck inside with lots of time, it’s a good hobby. It’s why I started a few years ago, and it’s become a form of therapy for me. That’s why, when the lockdown ends – any decade now – I hope some of you keep it up.  

I bake bread because I’ve sat behind a desk and a laptop every weekday since I graduated university. And I bet you could say the same. While I’ve been lucky enough, by and large, to spend most of my professional career doing something I love, it’s basically just sitting behind a screen clicking some buttons and making imaginary words go from my brain to someone else’s brain. 

It’s abstract, it’s anti-real. It’s just a bunch of thoughts. 

Baking bread, on the other hand, creates life. The yeast is a living organism. It can’t be a coincidence that the Hebrew words for life and bread – chaim and lechem, respectively – have the same roots. Or similar sounds, at least. 

When you sink your hands into a bowl of flour and water, you’re touching something real, corporeal and earthly. When you knead a ball of dough – and if you use a machine for this part, just try using your hands once or twice – feeling the stuff beneath your hands and between your fingers is a reminder that we are part of the physical world. 

Baking bread is physical, it’s real, and when you taste the bread that your two hands have produced, you’re tasting the idea of work.

More than that, bread is an individual activity that takes an entire community. “Farm to table” isn’t just a restaurant buzz phrase. There’s an entire social structure between how wheat becomes flour before it even gets to the store. 

For a long time, many of us have taken our food systems for granted. We’ve always been secure in the idea that we’re going to be able to take the money we have and go to the store, or sit down at a restaurant. We have the ability to have food grown, harvested, processed, cooked and delivered to us within minutes, all with the click of a button. 

Luckily, in Canada, our food systems are well and safely run, but we have to protect them. Yet, even the possibility of a threat to our food systems has thrown a lot of us for a loop. There are many among us, in our community and our country, who, even in in good times, do not share the confidence that we will be able to afford and find our next meal. 

When all this is over, we must rebuild in a way to ensure that no one faces food insecurity.  

For me, breadmaking is a reminder that I could feed myself in a true crisis. Breadmaking reminds us that we are a part of a community. We must heal our community at its most vulnerable points. 

For the most part, we are consumers, and most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. All I’m asking is for all of us to consume a little bit less, and create a little bit more. And share it with the people you love, or people who need it. Creation is how we remind ourselves that we are human and alive.

So, when all of this is over, decades from now, bake one more loaf of bread. If you do, I bet you’ll do it again.