Why I’m A Litmus-Test Minimalist

by tgilden

By David Bernstein


The Jewish community is beset with litmus-test fever. We obsess over whom not to engage, whom not to meet with and whom never to touch with a 10-foot pole. It’s an affliction of both the right and the left. And they, by the way, don’t speak to each other.

Many on the Jewish right oppose speaking to anyone who has ever uttered an anti-Semitic remark, anyone who associates with anyone who has, anyone who supports boycotting Israel, anyone who supports boycotting settlements and anyone who thinks that anti-boycott laws are a bad idea. They argue that if we speak to these people, we will legitimize them.

Many on the Jewish left oppose speaking to anyone who has ever made a bigoted remark, anyone who associates with anyone who has, anyone who argues for anything but structural explanations for why there’s disparity in the world and anyone who “supports the occupation.” They argue that if we speak to these people, we will normalize them.

Please don’t get me wrong. There are litmus tests worth having. I wouldn’t engage anyone who persistently demeans Jews and others, or calls for their destruction. I wouldn’t, for example, have a pow-wow with David Duke, Rev. Louis Farrakhan or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all of whom are doggedly consistent in expressing their ill will toward me. Not that they’ve called me lately to have lunch, either.

But for the most part I’d rather err on the side of engaging than blacklisting. This is for several reasons:

Litmus tests often fail to achieve the desired results. They are designed to deny a group or person acceptance in polite society for their bad behavior. But very often those imposing litmus tests overestimate their clout. If the Jewish right tries to blacklist a professor who supports BDS, but the effort doesn’t prevent the professor from teaching, attending academic conferences or getting published, why do it? Aren’t they just exposing the lack of support for their position?

Similarly, when the Jewish left urges Jewish groups not to meet with President Trump because he’s made offensive remarks, do they really believe that they’ll prevent him from being “normalized”? You can’t get more normalized than being elected president of the United States. Such litmus tests have no chance of achieving the desired result.

Litmus tests often isolate us, not the bad guys.

Frequently the purveyors of litmus tests insist that Jewish organizations not show up at gatherings because a problematic group will be participating. But the fact that the offender has been invited shows they already enjoy some legitimacy. In declining to participate, the Jewish organization may do more to isolate itself than the offender. 

Litmus tests make us look intolerant. When we apply a litmus test, irrespective of result, we risk looking like we are suppressing the free expression of others. When we are seen as the more powerful party, the litmus test can reinforce the perception that we are throwing our weight around.

People willing to engage others, including their adversaries, look confident and open to the world. People unwilling to do so come off as intransigent and insular. It’s a bad look.

Litmus tests may breathe oxygen into the offender’s cause. The very act of imposing a litmus test may generate controversy and bring publicity to the adversary. Attempting, for example, to prevent BDS supporters from participating in a campus event might give the BDS cause exposure it would not have otherwise received.   

Litmus tests can focus on the wrong thing. The more people are preoccupied with isolating their adversaries, the less they reach their target audience with positive messaging. For example, if they attempt to marginalize anti-Israel students, they probably spend less time reaching progressive students who have yet to develop a position. Adversary-obsession is an unwise use of resources. 

It’s hard to be intellectually consistent in applying litmus tests. If, for example, a Jewish right-winger insists on blacklisting a critic of Israel but refuses to shun an Israeli extremist, she can be accused of being a hypocrite. Same with a left-winger who insists on blacklisting a right-winger but refuses to condemn a Women’s March leader for praising Rev. Farrakhan.

Engagement may influence people on our issues. When we choose engaging over blacklisting, we might be able to influence the offender and the people around her. I would, for example, engage with a new member of Congress who has made disparaging remarks about Israel before attempting to sideline her. Our first instinct should be to give engagement a chance. We can always escalate later.

Under what circumstances should we contemplate imposing litmus tests?

1. When engagement doesn’t have a reasonable chance of working;

2. When the offender’s behavior is widely considered objectionable, especially to the target audience;

3. When we have a reasonable chance of succeeding in isolating the offender.

It’s time for litmus-test minimalism.

David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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