In a ferociously unapologetic address at Yeshiva University on Monday, December 5th, Ben Shapiro dismissed white privilege as myth, proclaimed transgenderism to be “nonsense” and equated Democrats to Marxists. Organized by the YU College Republicans and the conservative activist group Young America’s Foundation, the event drew a crowd of over seven hundred to Lamport Auditorium and was viewed via live streamed by another four thousand. Shapiro received a standing ovation on his way to the podium.
Though Shapiro is appreciated by many American Jews for his relentless defense of Israel on national television, the political commentator, bestselling author, and host of the radio show and news website The Daily Wire espouses conservative views, some of which are regarded by many as deeply controversial. In the hot-blooded political climate of post-election YU, Shapiro’s talk was highly anticipated by supporters and opponents alike. Attendees ran the gamut from impassioned Republicans to pro-Hillary Clinton t-shirt wearers. Since it was a “sensitive” event, said a source from YU security, patrol size was significantly increased to match the risk of “unwanted guests.” Shapiro’s nationwide campus visits have prompted riots at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, California State University and Penn State.
“Now’s a good time for me to answer a question that I probably get more than any other question,” began Shapiro. “Why do so many Jews vote left?” Himself a Modern Orthodox Jew, Shapiro emphasized the need to distinguish between mostly Democratic “ethnically Jewish voters,” and mostly Republican “religiously Jewish voters.” Shapiro attributed the Orthodox Republican vote to his own claim that “Torah Judaism does not support same sex marriage… does not support abortion… does not support social justice.”
Shapiro then shifted gears to discuss political philosophy, the centerpiece of his talk. Between the left and the right, he asserted that “we basically have nothing left in common. Our social fabric as a country, as a nation, is being destroyed.” Shapiro discussed at length the ideals and merits of conservatism and the “Mao[ist],” “collectivist” ideals and flaws of liberalism. In articulating his interpretations of political philosophies, his recurring use of contentious examples jarred many in the audience. While some felt that his lack of political correctness was “refreshing,” others, like Rachel Lelonek found many of his examples to be “bigoted, sexist and misogynistic.” In one such critique of collectivism, he condemned the left for claiming white supremacy to be the source of higher crime rates in minority communities, saying: “There’s a very easy way not to go to jail. You worry about the criminal justice system being biased against black people, there’s a very easy solution. Black people shouldn’t commit crimes.”
Addressing microaggression culture, Shapiro criticized “this notion that if you cross somebody’s individual sense of identity, that you’ve done something deeply wrong, even if what you’re saying is objectively true.” He then recalled his appearance on a CNN segment about transgenderism. “Was Caitlyn Jenner the gadol hador, or gedolah hador, [great man or great woman of our generation] was the big question,” he quipped. Much of the audience laughed and applauded. “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness that is deeply harmful… When you lie to people by humoring their delusions you’re actually exacerbating mental illness,” said Shapiro. The audience again applauded and whooped.
His speech was followed by a half-hour ‘Q&A’ session open to all audience members. Facilitator Zach Sterman, a member of YU College Republicans, encouraged “those particularly with a dissenting point of view to come up and ask away.” The club’s co-president, Yossi Hoffman, had also invited YU College Democrats to prepare questions beforehand. Students questioned Shapiro on the Dakota Access Pipeline, Confederate flag symbolism, criminal justice, abortion rights, and his perceived mockery of transgender individuals.
Kira Paley, who asked Shapiro where he draws the line “between being a metsch and clearly offending people” regarding his transgender “hate speech,” is one of several students who felt that Shapiro did not fairly address their questions. “Perhaps my opinion is skewed because I was the one asking the question,” said Paley, “but he sort of dodged it by using one specific anecdote. That said, I’m still happy I went up there to ask a question; perhaps my motivation wasn’t specifically to get a straight answer, but to point out his blatant hypocrisy and represent the students at the event who also were unsettled by some of the things Shapiro said.”
In an interview with The Observer, Shapiro shared that he was not surprised by the mixed reception he received from the audience. “I thought it was exactly what it should be, which is there are a lot of people who are fans and a lot of people who weren’t… My job is to say things that I think are true,” he contended.
In its aftermath, the event has sparked intense student dialogue on campus, and is cultivating an increased sense of both openness and tension within YU. “After he came, people were more able to speak up for what they think and what they really believe in, and bring light into very good conversations that I think we should be having,” asserted Benji Snow. “But what he said also stirred a lot of controversy on campus. It divided [the campus]… I had a debate today in class about it, and it was very heated.”
Many students identified with aspects of Shapiro’s perspective. “I think there were a lot of interesting, valid points made,” shared Meira Koslowe. “Even though these may be very different views from what many students at Stern believe, it was very good to hear, and he presented differing sides to many political issues very well. Even though his presentation comes off as very strong, I think that is just his style, which is totally valid.”
“I loved it,” shared Aryeh Walter. “I was really impressed by him and I liked his points. I think it’s the kinds of things a lot of us are thinking, but can’t exactly vocalize as well as he does… He doesn’t really care what a lot of people think, and I think he is entitled to that.” Walter felt that the event created a sense of unity on campus.
In the days prior to the speech, however, YU College Republicans’ posters on the Beren campus were anonymously removed without permission. Since the event, many students have expressed opposition to Shapiro’s statements, while others have highlighted their disappointment in the audience’s behavior.
“I was disappointed that somebody who thrives off of putting others down was received so warmly at YU,” said Gideon Turk. “Putting aside our Jewish values, it was disheartening to see such a large group of people agree with and cheer on a bully. That one of the central tenets of our religion is treating others with respect makes it even worse.”
“I, as a liberal student, can respect Shapiro’s differences of opinion,” shared Rena Kleiner. “What I cannot respect is the student body’s reaction throughout the evening. Many let the articulate and entertaining man in front of them encourage them to disrespect their fellow students,” she said, in reference to the partially supportive audience’s laughter and cheers during the speech and ‘Q&A’ session. “The members of the student body were the ones creating the chilul Hashem that night, not Mr. Shapiro.”
“Shapiro’s speech, at its core, was about empowering people to speak their minds, barring outright racism or bigotry,” said Hoffman. “We [of the YU College Republicans] brought him in to illustrate the basic notion that people should be allowed to voice their opinions.”
Whether the student body ultimately channels its diversity of opinion into unifying mutual respect, or divisive contempt, remains to be seen. Shapiro himself said that “diversity doesn’t mean anything without social fabric,” and as students continue to engage in dialogue, they will indeed qualify the definition and durability of YU’s own social fabric.