The Young Men’s Hebrew Association has apparently become too Jewish for a growing number of literary luminaries.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a dust storm over 92NY, formerly the 92nd Street Y (and founded as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association), a major institution of Jewish arts and culture. The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen was scheduled to give a book talk there in October, but the event was cancelled after Nguyen took up public activism against Israel after Hamas’s massacre. An artist boycott of the Y began forming immediately. Now Y CEO Seth Pinsky has talked to New York Magazine about the whole thing, and is standing his ground.

Pinsky’s interviewer, Simon van Zuylen-Wood, seemed surprised that Pinsky was surprised by the irreconcilable differences that have cropped up in the wake of Oct. 7. In 2022, after several years of rising antisemitism including the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the Y sought to “revitalize,” in Pinsky’s word, its Jewish identity and educate the public about the scourge of anti-Semitism.

This strikes me as admirable. But van Zuylen-Wood could already see the storm clouds gathering: “The Y was reemphasizing its brand of Jewish values at the very time the cultural elite was moving further left on an array of issues in response to Trump’s election and its aftermath — issues that we are now seeing intersect, sometimes clumsily, sometimes to resonant effect, with the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The left’s list of historic oppressors and villains — capitalists, cops, colonizers — increasingly also includes the Israeli state.”

Everything Pinsky says in the article comes off as perfectly reasonable. The timing of Nguyen’s trashing of Israel was atrocious. “This isn’t academic or theoretical for us,” Pinsky told New York. “This was a generationally unprecedented moment in the history of Jewish people, and we are a Jewish institution.”

Plus, Nguyen’s sense of entitlement to continue using the Jewish institution for his own professional benefit contained a fair amount of chutzpah. As Malcolm Gladwell, who refused to join the boycott of the Y, told van Zuylen-Wood: “It was a question of manners. If you have been invited to speak at the home of Jewish intellectual life in Manhattan, you don’t sign a petition the day before accusing Israel of ‘grave crimes against humanity.’ For goodness’ sake, there would be people in the audience who had loved ones killed in the Hamas attacks.”

No kidding! Nguyen’s behavior was obnoxious. But the boycotters insist it’s a question of free speech, of cancel culture. “We won’t come back,” threatened (promised?) Colm Tóibín. “I just don’t know of any writer who would want to do an event with them until they change their stance,” added Roxane Gay.

And what is that “stance,” anyway? Pinsky lays it out: “For a long time, we’ve made the decision that we’re not going to welcome people who are racist to our stage. We’re not going to welcome people who are homophobic or people who are misogynistic to our stage. We have adopted a policy of continuing to welcome diverse perspectives to our stage, including those of people who are critical of Israel. And we’ve essentially drawn only one red line. The red line is that if you actively call for the destruction of the State of Israel, or question its legitimacy, then you’re welcome to have that opinion in the world, but we’re not going to give it a platform.”

The key point here is that this is a (pretty reasonable!) application of the standards established by the same folks who are now protesting it, and it has nothing to do with “canceling the cancellers” or turnabout being fair play. (Nguyen said he was asked to sign a famous Harper’s letter asserting the primacy of free speech, and: “My gut instinct was to say ‘no.’”) It’s that the standards created by progressive artists and activists quickly became self-enforcing, and their accusations of hypocrisy ring hollow. If you construct a system in which deplatforming is the reflexive response to controversy, the people who had nothing to do with the construction of that system are not the culprits here. Find another scapegoat.

I am glad, however, to see the Y isn’t backing down from its general “yes, we are in fact a Jewish institution” posture. That is far more consequential than whether Colm Tóibín and Roxane Gay ever come back around to the Y.

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