A recent history of Jewish open letters: Phoebe Maltz Bovy looks between the lines of public statements we’re invited to co-sign


This piece originally appeared in the Passover 2023 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News:

In the spring of 2020, when I was not getting out much and thus even more entrenched than usual in online debates, I was asked to sign what would turn out to be a viral phenomenon that would be dubbed The Harper’s Letter: an open letter on the subject of illiberalism which, while it did not use the expression “cancel culture,” was a condemnation of that phenomenon:

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

When the draft first landed in my inbox, it seemed like a well-meaning statement from some academics, and I didn’t think much of it. I did not know at the time that it was destined to be published on the website of highbrow magazine Harper’s, or that famous people would be signatories. But I read the letter to see if it was something I agreed with, and it was. What I liked about it was that it spoke out against left censoriousness, while making it clear that there were at least as significant dangers from the right: Some are critical of left excesses because they want liberalism stronger, others because they want to see it destroyed; this was clearly a message from the former, which is where I place myself. (The big clue in that regard was the reference to Donald Trump as “a real threat to democracy.”) The letter was not about mocking the politically correct for kicks, but about defending liberalism. Was the letter, with its emphasis on “the value of robust and even caustic counterspeech,” somehow…Jewish?

An open letter is a curious form of writing. Open letters tend to involve somewhat grandiose remarks, sketched so broadly that it may seem as though no one could possibly disagree with their contents. As such, they derive much of their meaning from who’s written the letter and who’s being addressed.

Open letters are sometimes about internal institutional concerns, but only when there is some general interest in those matters outside those organizations. The latest splash-making open letter, as of February 2023, was from New York Times contributors, critical of the paper’s coverage of transgender issues.

An open letter is about harnessing the voices of many to reach the powerful—and, perhaps, otherwise unreachable—few. But it is not a petition. A petition has a measurable goal, whereas an open letter is usually a statement of principles, such that it may never really be known if an open letter’s signatories got what they wanted. Also unlike a petition, which is typically democratic from the get-go, an open letter will at least begin with a set of original, invited, signatories. As such, an open letter is as much about the reputations of the signatories as it is about the ideas expressed in the letter itself. It functions as a who’s-who, in multiple senses: it tells you who stands where on a given issue, but also derives much of its impact through bold-face names, community stalwarts, subject-matter experts, and prominent organizations that endorse it.

Émile Zola’s 1898 newspaper article, “J’Accuse…!,” the earliest and most famous example of the form, certainly mattered because of what was said, but also because of which strong-willed fiction writer was saying it. It’s credited with turning the Dreyfus case into the Dreyfus Affair, not merely because Zola called out the French president and others for falsely accusing French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason, but because he highlighted all of this to the general public. What might have remained an internal squabble amongst elites became instead a topic that captured public debate in France and beyond. It took J’Accuse…!” for the case to become the Affair, a shift that can be credited with Dreyfus’s ultimate exoneration.

Zola himself was not Jewish, but the relationship between the form of the open letter, and the act of defending Jews, seems to have stuck. There was a gentile-allies Guardian open letter in 2019, from famous British non-Jews (among them Joanna Lumley, who played Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous) who refused to support a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. But we Jews cannot be accused of sitting by and letting others compose open letters about us. We are extremely, impressively, on the case.

What follows, then, is a journey though Jewish open-letter-writing of the last few years. Whether motivated by a Jewish interest in contentious debate, a Jewish urge to protect liberalism, or the sadly timeless Jewish activity that is defending ourselves from our enemies, Jews have composed and signed many an open letter in our time. They’re perhaps a fitting genre of writing for a group of people of tremendous symbolic significance to the wider world, but whose own voices have a way of getting drowned out.


Explicitly Jewish open letters abound. Seemingly every day, my Twitter feed alerts me to a new one, each one shared like the press release it effectively is. Each one presents itself as a supremely important statement from people who simply must be heard. And maybe they all are! That said, it can be difficult to keep up.

The natural place to begin our journey through Jewish open letters of the past few years would be the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values’ 2021 missive, “A letter to our fellow Jews on equality and liberal values,” a defense, on Jewish grounds, of free speech. Some news outlets referred to as the “so-called ‘Jewish Harper’s letter.’” It shared a few signatories with, and took some inspiration from, the original. (Hello again Bari Weiss, Steven Pinker, et al.) The gist was that it is bad for the Jews—and not just bad generally—that these days, you can’t say anything anymore without getting cancelled:

“[The]suppression of dissent violates the core Jewish value of open discourse. Jewish tradition cherishes debate, respects disagreement, and values questions as well as answers. In ancient times, the Beit Midrash—the House of Study—encouraged passionate argument “for the sake of heaven.”

This letter soon elicited an unstated response in the form of “A Letter to Fellow Jews on Open Discourse, Rigorous Inquiry, and Generosity of Spirit.” The letter is not so much a defense of social justice ideology as pushback against “strawman caricatures” of ideas about which critics are sometimes ignorant. It’s basically saying, don’t throw the intersectionality baby out with the antisemitic bathwater:

“Any discussion about [social justice] concepts must take them seriously and read them fairly, and we are concerned that the attempt by some in the Jewish community to present such theories as inherently offensive, dangerous, or (paradoxically) censorial is in effect demanding the suppression or dismissal of important conversations the Jewish community should be having.”

Both letters were signed by illustrious rabbis, academics, journalists, and Jewish communal professionals. Both came to the conclusion that racism is bad and free speech is good.

Someone not immersed in these debates would be forgiven for thinking they’re reading about the same letter twice—except then they realize the letters are arguing with each other, and the poor naïve observers find the whole thing reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which the Judean People’s Front clashes with the People’s Front of Judea. But there are clues, from both the signatories (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg will probably have a take on things somewhat to the left of Liel Leibovitz) and the letters themselves, that they actually express two different stances.

Per the Liberal Values letter, “An ideology is taking hold across the country that insists there is only one way to look at the problems we face, and those who disagree must be silenced.” This is later clarified as referring to “the dominant social justice ideology,” and is, per the letter, particularly worrying for Jews. “Because this dominant narrative creates a worldview in which groups are only oppressors or oppressed, it encourages pernicious notions of ‘Jewish privilege,’ even implicating Jews in ‘white supremacy.’”

To this, the Jews for Open Discourse retorted, “Sweeping statements that such theories (for example) make crude divisions of the world into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ classes, or explicitly identify Jews as White supremacist dominators, must be supported with evidence, not simply stated as if fact.” Both letters made fair points. Yes, the current social justice framework is often hopeless at making sense of antisemitism. (Roughly the David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count, argument, though it predates that book.) Also, yes, critics of social justice ideology have been known to wholesale dismiss ideas that come from academia or activism, even when those ideas are beneficial to Jews, because they think the language sounds silly or jargony.

Taken together, the two letters illustrate that Jewish values lead some to embrace, and others to reject, so-called wokeness. Yet as much as they reveal an ideological schism, they also point to a shared Jewish value in thinking the people you disagree with are still worth arguing with. And open letters are a perfect venue for hashing such things out.


Open letters have also played a key (which is not necessarily to say effective) role in the
ongoing fight against antisemitism. In May 2016, as part of a decades-long project to arrive at an agreed-upon description of anti-Jewish hate, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance published a definition of antisemitism. That definition includes, among others, the claim that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” is a core form of antisemitism.

As such, rather than establishing antisemitism’s parameters once and for all, the IHRA definition has been a source of contentious debate. Some critics of Zionism have viewed it as conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, while some free-speech advocates—whatever their own views on Zionism— have seen it as stifling free expression. Unsurprisingly, the IHRA definition triggered not just one open letter but spurred the development of what has become a veritable genre.

An early entrant in this new body of literature came, in February 2020, from the organization Independent Jewish Voices of Canada. Its “Open Letter from 650+ Canadian Academics Opposing the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism” argued that the IHRA definition would impede free expression: “We urge all those who value honest debate and academic freedom to reject the imposition of a definition that would imperil the pursuit of truth and the legitimate expression of dissent.”

In May 2021, Michael Mostyn’s “An open letter to Canada: It is starting to be unsafe to be a Canadian Jew” appeared in the National Post, from the opposite perspective. Addressing “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, premiers, mayors, university presidents and all Canadians of good conscience,” Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada, summed up then-recent antisemitic incidents (spontaneous harassment of Jews; fallout from pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel rallies) and determined that this was, for Canadian Jews, a “time of crisis.” Unusual for an open letter, Mostyn’s gave concrete suggestions, including the need to “adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism without delay, especially within universities where the problem is most acute.”

Also taking on antisemitism, more recently, was the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Letter to Elon Musk.”

The letter, also signed by the Reform Jewish Community of Canada, as well as many Reform congregations in the States, and some progressive Jewish organizations, asks Musk to make Twitter less hospitable to antisemites. Antisemites possibly including… Musk himself. “We are equally concerned by several of your own posts that suggest sympathy for white supremacists. This includes your tweets of a photo of a Nazi soldier and Pepe the Frog, which has become a popular meme among the alt-right.” There’s a certain poignancy to this attempt at reasoning with a billionaire edgelord. Who knows what Elon Musk is doing at the moment, but one imagines it’s not reading what Reform Jews think about him. I can only wish the letter-writers well.


Remember intermarriage? The topic too earned its own 2021 open letter. Matthew Bronfman, Canadian-adjacent businessman and philanthropist, had given an interview to the website eJewish Philanthropy, in which he was asked: “What worries you, keeps you up at night?” Bronfman’s answer was “intermarriage.” I think the Jewish communal fixation on tsktsking intermarriage has been at best futile and at worst insulting. Matthew Bronfman evidently does not. Having been married four times, he is doubtless well-versed in marriage-related topics. And if he managed to find not one but four Jewish wives, more power to him. Whatever.

“Whatever” was not the sentiment of interfaith Jewish non-profit 18Doors. In response to Bronfman’s remark, the group put out “An Open Letter to Matthew Bronfman On Behalf of Interfaith Families.” In it, the organization’s leader, Jodi Bromberg, pointed out that hostility from the community (and apathy from donors) has led to intermarried Jews and their offspring feeling left out. True enough, although it’s unclear that someone who defines Jewishness differently than Bromberg does (or than I do, for what it’s worth) would be persuadable via a letter along these lines.


We are now in a new phase of Jewish open letters, as North American Jews critical of the recently elected right-wing Israel government have not just spoken out against it but asked their fellow Diaspora Jews to do the same. February 1 saw a missive from 169 U.S. Jewish leaders including “the former executives of rabbinical seminaries, Jewish Federations, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents.” The letter, “A Leadership Call for Critical and Necessary Debate About Israeli Policies,” takes an unanticipated stance: “There is no contradiction between combating antisemitism and criticizing the deeply troubling policies of the new Israeli government.”

Unanticipated, that is, from those speakers. Typically, anyone associated with pro-Israel advocacy is not also associated with open letters that state several times throughout that it’s not antisemitic to criticize Israel. What’s interesting here is that this refrain comes up not to appease Israel’s critics, but because the signatories themselves actually are the critics.

The following day, this letter was joined by “An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America,” signed, “With blessings from Jerusalem,” by Matti Friedman, Daniel Gordis, and Yossi Klein Halevi. The three writers, all of whom had moved from North America to Israel, take the unusual step of asking Diaspora Jews to get busy… criticizing Israel.

Open letters criticizing the Israel—or Canadian news coverage thereof—are not new, but are associated with the pro-Palestinian, or anti-Zionist, left.

The novelty with these new letters, then, comes from the speakers. These two latest letters criticize the Israeli government to defend Israel’s existence. It’s not entirely unlike the Harper’s letter’s criticisms of progressive pieties, aimed, as they were, at maintaining, not dismantling, progress. They show a perhaps Jewish tendency—knowing that extremism doesn’t work out so well for us—to want to preserve all that is working while critiquing that which is not.


Jewish open letters are, then, a way for a group of people often spoken about as an abstraction to speak up for ourselves. And they’re a way for a community famous for holding wide ranging opinions to force itself to find at least partial common ground. But the question with Jewish open letters remains the same as that with open letters generally: Is anyone listening?

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz