Democracy and choice
The sublime thing about liberal democracies is that they are based on the rights and responsibilities of individuals rather than groups. Unlike the kind of sectarian societies imploding in civil war in the Middle East, in a liberal democracy, it is the individual who chooses to go to the ballot box (or abdicate) or to attend a protest (or go to the movies), and it is the individual who must abide by the law or face punishment.
In robust multicultural societies like Canada’s, individuals are given another opportunity – to identify as an ethnic, religious or cultural group. While these groups are considered a boon to the fabric of society, all rights and responsibilities remain solely with the person. Which is why calls for Muslims in Canada and the United States to publicly denounce acts of terrorism committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and others inspired by them, is understandable – but ultimately wrong.
Here’s where it’s understandable. Terrorism – defined as the targeting of civilians for political ends – is morally distasteful. When committed by a fellow citizen, the action is especially corrosive, leading to distrust and paranoia. When an act of terrorism is committed by a person or group claiming to act on behalf of a particular religion, it’s tempting to want everyone else from that religion to denounce the action.
Here’s where it’s wrong. As a Jew, I regularly urge my fellow Jews to stand up for injustice as Jews, to stand up against an array of Israeli policies that I find objectionable. I encouraged my Jewish community centre (when I was a board member) to undertake staff training around LGBTQ awareness, thus enabling it to declare itself an “LGBTQ safe zone,” as facilitated by the Jewish LGBTQ organization Keshet. As a Jew, and as a Jewish columnist in the Jewish press, I stand up for religious freedom in Israel, for human rights, for an end to the occupation and for racial and ethnic equality.
But let’s recall an incident last summer with Jewish pop singer Matisyahu. Organizers attempted to ban Matisyahu from performing at a music festival in Spain unless he denounced the Israeli occupation. Matisyahu is an American, not an Israeli. His only association with the Jewish state is that he himself is Jewish.
It was a distasteful act of political theatre on the part of the organizers precisely because they drew a faulty line of logic: Israeli occupation is morally objectionable to them, so all Jews (or at least famous ones) must take a public stand because they are Jews. (After a public outcry, the festival organizers backtracked.)
In a liberal democracy, whatever collective identities we hold – sexual, religious, ethnic and so on – are the domain of the private sphere unless we choose, as individuals, to act otherwise. So, while I hope my fellow Jews will take a stand against an array of social ills, and am aware that some don’t, I would be disgusted and disturbed if, say, a work colleague or a politician or a journalist in a local or national daily were to demand that I, because I happen to be Jewish, denounce one thing or another.
The upshot? Community conversations about dynamics relating to that community are crucial to have. But they are just that: community conversations. We must leave members of synagogues, mosques, churches, JCCs and other organizations to debate among themselves whether and how to publicly denounce actions committed in their name. The pages of the community newspaper may indeed be one useful forum among many for these tough conversations.
And perhaps the Jewish community, being more integrated, prosperous and secure than the Muslim community in North America, may even serve as a model. But demanding that sort of stand taking by others in a civic forum violates the delicate multicultural balance that is intrinsic to a liberal democracy, where the individual is the only meaningful object and subject of political action.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. This article was originally published in the CJN.