Ben Shapiro – the controversial American right-wing firebrand, former editor-at-large of Breitbart News and now the host of the talk show The Daily Wire – will speak at the Schara Tzedek Synagogue in Vancouver tomorrow, as part of the Faigen Lecture Series, and will give a lecture in front of a sold-out crowd at the University of British Columbia on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s talk is being sponsored by the Faigen Family and B’nai Brith Canada, and organized by the Vancouver Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school.
Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, has a large following in the United States and is known for his controversial opinions and rhetoric. Shapiro believes that homosexuals and transgender people suffer from mental illness and has been very critical of feminists and anti-racism activists for exaggerating the problems women and black people face in the U.S. today. He also takes a hard stance on immigrants and refugees, and is in favour of greater border security and deporting undocumented immigrants.
Shapiro defines himself as a “sometimes-Trumpist” and supports the contemporary Republican Party, which he has been campaigning to get re-elected in the U.S. midterms. Shapiro has sparked controversy with many of his views, as well as his aggressive promotion of them and denigration of his political opponents.
Not everyone is happy with members of the Jewish community in Vancouver giving him a forum.
“There should be room within our Jewish community for a variety of political perspectives, expressed with sensitivity and heard with curiosity, but I must differentiate between tolerance of differing viewpoints and tolerance of bigotry,” said Rabbi Hannah Dresner, the spiritual leader of Or Shalom Synagogue and head of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver (RAV). “We must not allow Judaism to be associated with prejudice or racism. It’s not right and it’s not good for us.”
Rabbi Dresner made it clear that she was speaking personally and not as a representative of the RAV. One sitting member of the RAV, Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, is the leader of the synagogue that’s hosting the event.
“Ben Shapiro has not demonstrated ability, or, perhaps, desire, to adhere to respectful speech, or to refrain from incendiary descriptions of vulnerable populations. I defend Ben Shapiro’s freedom of speech, his rights in the public forum, but private sponsorship of his expressions gives me pause,” said Rabbi Dresner.
Shapiro is frequently criticized for using incendiary or disrespectful language. He once wrote that “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” In 2017, Shapiro’s website, The Daily Wire, published a video in defence of Columbus Day, which depicted Native Americans as animated savages before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. At one point, the video lists Native American achievements as consisting of dreamcatchers, tomahawks and cannibalism. When challenged by people across the political spectrum about the video, Shapiro initially defended it, then eventually submitted to pressure and removed the video with an apology.
Although some attempt to associate Shapiro with the so-called alt-right, he has distanced himself from the movement. After explicitly breaking with the “alt-right,” he became the target of extensive anti-Semitic attacks online.
“B’nai Brith has stated that its interest in Shapiro talking in Canada is rooted in his positions on Israel. “As a pro-Israel activist,” Bnai Birth stated in a press release, “Shapiro has educated thousands on the anti-Semitic nature of movements like BDS and frequently points out the double standards, delegitimization and demonization to which Israel is often subjected.”
As well as defending Israel from what he deems unfair criticism, Shapiro also opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. Shapiro has stated in interviews that he supports either unilaterally annexing the West Bank and Gaza to Israel, or maintaining the current status quo of occupying and policing the territories.
Rabbi Stephen Berger, head of the Judaic department at King David High School in Vancouver, said that engaging with Shapiro’s ideas presents an opportunity for critical thought and respectful dialogue. “Here at the high school, Shapiro has both avid fans and detractors among the students,” he said. “We show a video of his in our ethics class and use it as an exercise for deconstructing arguments and respectful debate. I think that’s very important these days.”