My Apology to the Old ACLU

by Dr. Robert Lebovits

In 1977 an American neo-Nazi group sought to march through the predominantly-Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie. They were denied a permit by the local officials, in part because many Skokie residents at the time were families of Holocaust survivors. The outrage and personal anguish such a march would generate was considered adequate grounds for denying the group’s First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

The Nazis turned to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to represent them in court to acquire the necessary permit. The executive director then was Aryeh Neier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. As well, many of the ACLU Board members were Jewish. After much debate, Neier made the decision to represent the offensive group. They were successful in their legal action and won the right to march.

The pushback was profound. The ACLU lost over 30,000 members and many Jewish organizations were extremely critical of the decision. Many thousands of counter-protesters came to Skokie to show support for the Jewish community. As it turned out, the march was never held. According to some contemporary commenters the group had achieved its objective of gaining national publicity for its cause without having to do much work. One might say that the ACLU had been played, and their defense of free speech was misguided. As a young man I certainly came to that conclusion. However, looking at events going on today it is clear I and many others were wrong and the ACLU was right. I offer my formal apology.

Among the many activities happening across the country under the heading of “Justice” (racial, social, environmental, financial, etc.), is a profound reassessment of our language. The meanings of words and their common usage are being examined and parsed to determine how they may be complicit in maintaining discriminatory power structures, contributing to destructive social constructs, and oppressing identity groups with hurtful attacks on members’ self-esteem. While legal efforts to regulate some forms of speech offensive to various groups have been going on for over a century, the more recent popular appeal to monitor speech has taken on a wholly different character.

Currently we are experiencing a phenomenon similar to Alice in Wonderland where Humpty Dumpty tells her, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more or less.” A number of social activists and diversity and inclusion thought leaders have offered their judgments as to the propriety of a whole host of widely-used terms – interpreting meanings and imputing impact that was never really considered before. “Whiteness” is no longer about hue; it is a quality of being that has centuries-old negative consequences. “Master bedroom” is a wholly inappropriate descriptor of the largest bedroom in the house because it reaffirms unequal value to the members of the household. Recently I learned that “pro-life” is a racist term because the roots of curtailing abortion was to increase the numbers of the white population (I presume the pundit who put forward this information was unaware of the fact that it is estimated 16 million abortions have been performed on Black women since Roe v. Wade. How much greater would the Black population have been in a pro-life culture?).

The intent of these analyses and reformulations is obvious and simple. Language is not only the instrumentality through which we communicate ideas via consensually agreed-upon meaning. Language is also the medium we use to create thoughts. Researchers are uncertain whether we can actually remember events that we experienced before we acquired language. It is unclear how something could be stored in memory if there is no language to give definition and character. Since thinking requires language, when language is curtailed so is thought.

In 1984 George Orwell presented a construction called “Newspeak”, an ordered language with a simple grammar and diminished vocabulary, meant to limit the capacity for thought and thereby constrain the development of ideas that would challenge the prevailing political hierarchy. The fewer words the better, whereby all human thought and interactions could be communicated in less than 800 words – less than the number possessed by the average three-year old in this country today. Orwell knew the power of language, and so do the activists for social change. Their aim is more than improving people’s behavior. It is to change the way we think. If one can change the way people think, it will change how they feel and how they act, so society will conform to a set of prescriptions defined as good.

The ACLU back in 1977 knew that more language is better than less, that even language which offends needs to be freely spoken – and countered by better ideas – rather than stifled or censored. We then have the opportunity to examine thoughts and make our own choices. The Ramchal tells us that koach habechirah – the ability to make choices – is truly the only power humans possess and the only control given to us by our Creator. Yet it is so powerful that it makes us accomplices with HKB”H in the Creation and to a considerable extent defines reality.

    If we are not permitted to perceive choice, it does not exist

. Limiting thought by limiting language thereby limits choice, and constrains the Jew from fully realizing his/her potential in this existence.

Not all ideas are worthy of expression and Torah provides us with specific directives as to what speech can and cannot be spoken. Even so, the frum world knows how human whims and interests are inconstant and subject to passions and impulses. Many of the principles and propositions espoused by present-day advocates for change are incompatible with a Torah worldview.

As much as we should promote better conduct within our own community, we should also maintain our will to question and critique any perspective that is not in sync with our values, and be strong enough to challenge false narratives and efforts to distort meaning. We ought to support the ends of pursuing greater fairness while concurrently rejecting some of the means.

Dr. Robert Lebovits is a psychologist in Pittsburgh, PA in practice for over 35 years. He is a talmid of Mesivta Torah Vodaath and learned in Israel in Yeshiva Beis Hatalmud under Harav Dov Schwartzman, zt”l and Harav Moshe Shapiro, zt”l. He is the co-creator of Mind-Focused Therapy and Coaching, a metacognitive approach to change.

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34 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    “Among the many activities happening across the country under the heading of “Justice” (racial, social, environmental, financial, etc.), is a profound reassessment of our language.”

    Those who try to pull this off have a simple goal, to run our lives based on their offensive principles. Their mangling of language, backed up by their chokehold on American education and media, is just one tool. However, regardless of abstract principles, you just might want to keep the new brown shirts out of your own neighborhood.

  2. benshaul says:

    Kudos to Dr Lebovits for his analysis. Having had the privilege of his sagacity and leadership for many years, I feel comfortable with a minor critique – he didn’t go far enough in his article!
    Much yet remains to be said for the “coddling of the American mind”, and the dangers of limiting speech. While he touched on the impact of limiting language, it is also the ability to express that which with we disagree- that is the essence of talmudic debate, and how we sharpen our mind and coalesce our thoughts.
    To paraphrase Reb Chaim, “if i cannot express a concept, I cannot formulate the argument to defeat it”.
    That is the danger of the left vis-a-vis its’ politics, and the danger to our way of life as thinking Jews.

  3. Dovid Kasten says:

    Unfortunatly, Dr. Robert Lebovits is the victim of today’s popular notion that everything is relative. The idea that no word can be said to mean a certain thing and everything depends on the inner thoughts of the speaker, is a both dangerous idea and against what the Torah tells us.
    While one can argue (and i believe he is correct) that the left is using language to forward their twisted beliefs and destructive values, the fact is, that word do have meaning to themselves. “Free Speech”, in which all Americans swear by, is diametrically opposed to what a Torah Jew believes in. No, one cannot speak badly about others without reason. No, one is not permitted to speak against the Torah or its’ ideals. And no, one is not permitted to push anti-Torah philosophies.
    The case which Dr. Lebovits brings down and his opinion that the UCLA did not err is a perfect example where one takes on the “American Way” and abandons the morals of the Torah. And while one may claim that not letting them march will impact the future of pro-Torah values in the future, who are we to be making compromises to “protect” the Torah. A Nazi is a Nazi, and he should not be given the chance to spew his anti-Semitic trash and perhaps infect others.
    While Dr. Lebovits does not take his ideas one step further, we can do so for ourselves. Should a “pride” parade be permitted to walk through a heavily inhabited area of Orthodox Jews such as Boro Park or Lakewood? Should pro-abortion teachers be permitted to speak their mind in Yeshivas and Beis Yaakov’s? Where do we draw the line?
    What me must do is fight, with all that is permitted according to the law and the Torah, for the values which we believe in. We must defend Torah principles and morals where it is popular or not or where it “may” do “damage” to us in the future. Because, while yesterday’s racism is today’s anti-racism, the Torah is eternal and applies in every scenario at every point in time.

    • dr. bill says:

      your criticism is patently incorrect. words do not have intrinsic meaning outside a particular context. words can mean different things in different contexts. anachronisms result from applying current interpretation to words spoken in a different era. the issue is how and why such changes occurred.

      • Dovid Kasten says:

        I agree that some words are anachronisms. In fact, in my comment i wrote that “yesterday’s racism is today’s anti-racism”, which is a great example of what you are saying. I merely spoke out that there are words that are intrinsically evil and there are words that are intrinsically good and that we should fight against the evil ones. Nazism is evil. Period. There will never be a time when Nazism is good or even accepted because its root is evil. Therefore, those that promote their ideology should be prevented from given a chance to poison others.

    • lacosta says:

      >>>>>Should a “pride” parade be permitted to walk through a heavily inhabited area of Orthodox Jews such as Boro Park or Lakewood? Should pro-abortion teachers be permitted to speak their mind in Yeshivas and Beis Yaakov’s? Where do we draw the line?

      —-well, this is pretty easy . unlike New Square or Kiryas Yoel , Jews don’t own the streets of BP or Lakewood . [the AIDS walk in LA always has gone thru haredi neighborhood ] . And as of this month , Supreme Court narrowly would allow the school to control what teachers can say in a private religious institution.

      The view of the Torah will be increasingly disadvantaged if a certain party wins the triple crown [prez,house,senate ] , which is guaranteed to repeal the RFRA act , thereby limiting freedom of religion only to areas where it won’t conflict with PC/woke theology….

      • Bob Miller says:

        This reminds me of the rude awakening Governor Mike Pence had in Indiana when he signed a state RFRA bill into law Not only the left, but also the business establishment came down on him hard. That’s testimony to the power of socially destructive ideas that our elites are exposed to during their education. Nowadays, big business backs such ideas with gusto, not just under duress.

    • Robert Lebovits says:

      My comment about the attempt to distort and limit language does not imply that anything ought to be heard. In fact I made a distinction between language and speech, encouraging the former and recognizing that the latter has limits. However, you raise a point deserving of attention.
      There is a bit of wit that says: “If a conservative doesn’t agree with what a speaker is saying, he will listen to a different speaker. If a leftist doesn’t like what a speaker is saying, he will silence the speaker” (I’m sure the distinction could be applied as well to individuals of other political persuasions).
      How do we identify what is wrong from what is right if we don’t put them both forward and explain clearly and precisely which one is which? In the very beginning of Derech Hashem the Ramchalspends considerable effort delineating exactly what we can and cannot know about the Borei Olam and what constitutes error that will lead us to kefirah. Would it have been better to be silent and not consider the possibility that people might find their way to these ideas? He could simply have written, “This is what you can know about Hashem and everything else is wrong.” He did not. Something to ponder.

      • Dovid Kasten says:

        Excactly as you yourself said. “How do we identify what is wrong from what is right if WE don’t put them both forward and explain clearly and precisely which one is which?”
        We (i.e. Daas Torah) should be the ones (in select situations) putting both opinions forward and explaining which is right, which is wrong, and why. Not a skinhead. Not an “intellectual” (who is anything but).
        By letting ourselves be “open minded” to hearing any opinion out there, we have a large chance of being influenced for bad. Hearing Sheker hundreds of times over, even if we know it is false, will have a negative effect on us.

  4. dr. bill says:

    Excellent article; sadly this occurs all too often in various guises, religious and secular.

    Its applicability extends to many current yeshivah students who lack adequate education in any language (secular, Hebrew or Yiddish) to express sophisticated sevarot when learning. I am not certain, but I believe I heard this comment made by or be’shem RAL ztl.

    Benshaul was quoting “vos felt in hasboreh felt in havanah,” a truism if there ever was one. If your understanding is clear, a comprehensible explanation is enabled. I learned this again last week from a reviewer’s comment, which caused me to think harder and explain more easily.

    • Robert Lebovits says:

      I had the great blessing to have been in the shiur of R. Moshe Shapiro, zt”l as a bochur in Yerushalayim. At the time there were only a handful of us chutzniks among the 25 or so in the group and all shiurim were in Ivrit. Rav Moshe’s safah was so exquisitely elegant and precise that listening to his presentation on any subject was incredibly pleasurable – let alone appreciating the content of his words. I have no doubt that his ability to convey nuance and definition magnified the power of his conceptual thinking orders of magnitude.

    • Shades of Gray says:

      “Its applicability extends to many current yeshivah students who lack adequate education in any language (secular, Hebrew or Yiddish)”

      I remember hearing a traditional rosh yeshiva, who was also known for his knowledge of secular subjects , advise his students that “a person has to be able to express himself clearly in some language —in can be Hebrew , English, or Yiddish—but it must be a language”. This rav was asked to speak in a Chasidishe boys camp in the Catskills, and he used a rich, old-fashioned Yiddish to address the audience. Supposedly, they interrupted him in the middle saying, “we prefer you speak in English!”( I found a similar description online about Rav Gifter, who described Telz in Europe to American students(“With a bright smile that lit up his face from just thinking about this fond memory, he would eloquently paint the picture – he would use large, fancy words so gracefully and effortlessly, some of the younger bochurim couldn’t even understand his English!).

      Surprisingly, there have been linguistic studies of “Yeshivish”. According to sources cited on Wikipedia, “Yeshivish is not a pidgin, creole, or an independent language, nor is it precisely a jargon…Yeshivish differs from English primarily in phonemic structure, lexical meaning, and syntax.” To borrow from the amorphous classification of a creature described in the Gemara:

      בריה בפני עצמה היא, ולא הכריעו בה חכמים

      Abbie Rottenberg sparked the discussion back in 1992 with the lyrics of his “Yeshivish Reid” song on a Journeys album , “with Yiddish, English, Hebrew – it’s a mixture of all three, and a dash of Aramaic; a linguistic potpourri…” More recently, there is an online video available of Prof. Sarah Bunin Benor, who teaches at Hebrew Union College, speaking at the Library of Congress about her book “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism.”

      • dr. bill says:

        RAL ztl gave shiur in English in my day 50+ years ago and rarely, but on occasion, sent students scurrying for a dictionary. When he came to Israel, Hebrew was not yet sufficiently developed for him to fully express himself. He introduced numerous “new” Hebrew words that became part of a dictionary distributed at Har Etzion.

  5. Raymond says:

    Surely there are better ways to expand our language other than through a neo-nazi March through Skokie, Illinois back in the 1970’s. Actually, had I been in charge of handling that situation, I would have allowed the march, but with the understanding that those who physically resisted that march, would not be held back. Giving those neo-nazis a good physical beating would have been well-deserved, and might have convinced those empty-headed thugs to take up some hobby other than antisemitism.

      • Raymond says:

        Oddly enough, the notorious KKK can be said to have had a justifiable origin. The group was founded in protest to the affirmative action of their day, in which the unqualified Blacks were put in positions of power as the North’s way of exacting further punishment on the South. This went completely against the conciliatory spirit so eloquently expressed by President Lincoln in his greatest speech of all, namely his Second Inaugural Address which he delivered on March 4, 1865. Tragically, however, just one month later, he was murdered by the bona fide racist, John Wilkes Booth, and Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was among the worst Presidents this nation ever had. And as for the KKK, their original intent soon devolved into out-and-out racism of the worst kind as well as violence, as they expanded their targets of wrath and lost all sense of self-restraint, becoming a shameful blight on this nation’s history. In honor of the great President Lincoln, here is the famous, truly magnificent closing to his greatest of speeches:
        “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as G-d gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

      • Bob Miller says:

        Reconstruction in the South was a positive good from beginning to end, and we should not buy into the lies and propaganda of its detractors.

    • Nachum says:

      “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

      • Nachum says:

        Of course, it’s cheered when the Blues Brothers do it to guys in Nazi uniforms. When some poor schmo in Virginia does it to some Antifa fascists, he gets centuries of jail time.

  6. joel rich says:

    Take your pick:
    “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. -J Donne

    never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee E Hemingway

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  7. Schmerel says:

    There no comparison between speech and behavior that is clearly intended to be to provocative and harassment like neo nazis marching in Skokie or a pride parade in a frum neighborhood and speech that on the face of it is clearly neutral but can be thought of as racist if you give it some meaning other than the common usage like say master bedroom . (I’m surprised the term Masters degree is still acceptable)

    Technically they may both be legal but it is wrong to encourage the former or defend it if some legal objection is raised. Defending (ie encouraging) people acting in a manner of harassment towards other is much more of a dangerous path than the potential suppression of their free speech

    • Robert Lebovits says:

      Your observation that there is a clear difference between words that are provocative on their face and those that “are clearly neutral” sounds very reasonable. And yet we are confronted by a growing cadre of activists who claim there is no such thing as “neutral” words and therefore any language they can construe as demeaning to their constituents must be neutralized.
      I must disagree with your judgment that defending is the same as encouraging, as well as the notion that suppression of language is less dangerous than allowing harassing language. As a society we can counter harassment with better ideas. But that can happen only if we are allowed to express our words without being censored or condemned.

    • Michael says:

      Defending is not the same as encouraging. One can defend someone’s right to be an idiot without agreeing with their actions. The ACLU is meant to defend free speech. If they didn’t defend the Neo Nazis theyd be betraying their own purpose and principles. Defending free speech only when it benefits you or you agree with it is like pouring water on a flat surface but not wanting it to spread. That’s nice, but it’s impossible.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Excellent article! We definitely are living in an era that Orwell described in 1984 and Animal Farm that the disciples of Marcuse are attempting to implement in the media the sciences culture and academia

  9. Daniel says:

    This article is an excellent example of cognitive dissonance, in that the author’s supposedly rational views change, depending on whether he agrees or disagrees with the view being expressed, by those who would like the ‘free speech’ to express them.
    When the views being expressed were anti-semitic he disagreed with free speech, albeit with a ‘rational’ reason, however it is no co-incidence that he is Jewish.
    Now that the views being expressed are ones that he seemingly agrees with, he decries the lack of free speech when those who express them are stifled. Somehow his ‘rational’ views, have now changed.
    Ultimately (to his credit) he admits that what is free speech and what is not free speech is governed by the Torah, so the author seems to be admitting that all his previous arguments are moot, leaving me questioning as to the point of article in the first place.
    Interestingly, the author being a psychologist, should be best placed to self-examine his biases when forming opinions, but often those who are closest to a subject are often oblivious to it when it directly affects them.
    Nicely written article though, with some interesting facts and points.

    • Robert Lebovits says:

      When confronted by offensive language there are two responses that can be made: 1. Counter the offending ideas and expressions with ones that promote values and principles that are “better”; or 2. Suppress the offensive words and activities so that they cannot be heard thereby eliminating that which is considered abhorrent.
      Typically, it is more difficult and sometimes not as effective to do the former than the latter. Allowing offending language to continue to be aired means there are those who will still be made uncomfortable and the content will continue to be disseminated. Suppressing the expressions all together would seem to eliminate both of those problems. As well, the downside of suppression seems to be rather limited, essentially impacting only those who desire the objectionable content.
      Recently “suppression” has taken on a new form. Instead eliminating obviously detestable language, the meanings of words are being plumbed and distorted so that even seemingly inoffensive language has been deemed offensive and unacceptable, all in the name of “justice”. Now the choice of using suppression has considerably more danger attached to it as it would result in major harm to our ability to formulate and share thoughts and ideas, as I described.
      I believe back in 1977 the ACLU had a more profound understanding of the impact of suppression than many of its opponents saw, myself included, and how it could devolve into today’s attacks on expression. Truth be told, as frum Jews we should have been more astute. After all, our language offended the authorities big time in the 13th century when King Louis IX of France – today known as St. Louis – decided to burn all the shas and other seforim he could get his hands on. Perhaps we thought that the modern world had become more civilized and there was no concern our words could be banned again (make no mistake: words like am hanivchar, or even tznius could be attacked as bigotry in today’s atmosphere). Then again, Hitler did it again. In any case, I did not see then what I can see now, and for that reason it is appropriate to acknowledge one’s error.
      With new knowledge comes new understanding and the need for re-appraisal of past views. That is how wisdom is acquired. It is not cognitive dissonance to change one’s mind about a subject after gleaning new knowledge.
      Every aspect of our personal conduct is governed by Torah, for the Jew. The use of speech is of course no exception. I have not suggested that as individuals we can ignore any boundary and use whatever language we like at any time under any circumstance. My observations and analyses address the danger being posed by the distortion of language and the need for society to permit even words that offend. A recent survey found that 47% of young people support the idea that the First Amendment should be changed to protect only some words and not others. That is a very slippery slope. We can be sure that were that to happen, the Torah would be highly susceptible to Leftist censorship. We must not allow that to come to pass.

      • Dovid Kasten says:

        On the other hand, one must understand that words and their definition are only tools in the mouths of those who use them. The Left, who is using language to forward their agenda, is out to change things with all the tools at their disposable. This includes not only the wording and freedom of expression but also propaganda against Torah ideals, legislation, mob rule, and a host of many more weapons that they deploy. The First Amendment is just one way they attack what is good and taking that ability out of their hands will not change the source of the problem or its’ danger.

      • Bob Miller says:

        The root problem is that many people are offended by truth that contradicts the lies they grew up with or later adopted..

      • Daniel says:

        Thanks for your response with points well made. However, again it seems to me that you’re not arguing your point on principle, but based on a need to protect your own free speech, with special concern for views possibly espoused y the Torah, which you are worried might end up being censored due to the current zeitgiest. Fair enough. But be honest about it.
        Take your King Louis example. If the shoe was on the other foot, and King Chizkiyahu was burning the Hindu Vedas or even Dawkins’s God Delusion for that matter, it seems to me that you wouldn’t be crying for free speech and you might even be applauding. Or would you fight for the Hindu’s right to worship who/how they would like, and the right for Dawkin’s to publish heresy?

      • Dovid says:

        If we had a Mikdash and King Chizkiyahu asked the Kohen Gadol who turned to the Urim V’Tumim with a message to burn those said works then we would certainly applaud out of Kavod HaTorah. However, we are in galus and there is a grave concern when anonymous cyber mobs, or cabals who wrested control of universities, attempt to commandeer the 1st amendment to forward their agenda which includes controlling others into submission.

  10. Steven Brizel says:

    I am for letting the marketplace of ideas allowing the public to accept or reject the extremes of speech As much I don’t like the mainstream media I have the right to watch it If I do t like sports being politicized I have the option not to watch I don’t think cities named after a pope who burned Shas are a threat to Newish continuity but Jews who don’t know the elements of Echad Mi Yodea and think that social justice is the definition of Judaism clearly are mistaken and it is my right to argue and persuade via all the means granted by the First Amendment and Jewish tradition to demonstrate that such a perspective is grossly mistaken

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    There is no stronger refutation of what King Louis did than the continuity ogbAm Yisrael and its dedication to Torah and Mitzvos whether in quantity quality or sheer perseverance throughout the ages

    I think that cancel culture is horrific on a general cultural level and that the Torah and Chazal clearly reject such an examination of man his achievements and failings it. And clearly be posited that elevating and redeeming the past as opposed to obliterating the past is is a far higher form of Teshuvah

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    A letter to the editor in the Forward cited Acher Spinoza and Sabbetai Tzvi as being examples of cancel culture I beg to differ All legal systems including Torah and Halacha have rules that govern the behavior of adherents and set rules for discussion and provides for the discussion of all whose views can somehow be justified by the rules and logic that determine the merit or lack thereof a particular position The views and behavior of Acher despite the pleading of R Meir Sabbetzai Tzvi and Spinoza were clearly beyond those standards Cancel culture in contrast seeks to obliterate history and suppress all dissenting views in its entirety in the name of a supposedly better world

    • Bob Miller says:

      The problem is not in having standards but in having perverse standards as today Left has.

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