Omnicausus belli: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the merging of all left-wing campaigns into something that’s been christened ‘The Omnicause’

The Omnicause comes with its own slogans—although others take issue with "gay" as a colonial term. (Credit: Kind Find Apparel/Esty)

When I saw that there was an opinion piece in The Forward, making the case that it’s yeah maybe not the best idea to ban mask-wearing on the New York City subways in the name of fighting antisemitism, I thought, yes, thank you. It’s an absurd proposal, not least because once you allow for medical exceptions (and this gesture’s been made), anyone can rightly say that their masking—unless you’re talking something like the Phantom of the Opera mask—lessens the spread of germs.

How is mask-banning meant to fight antisemitism, you might wonder? Think keffiyeh-wrapped faces at encampment protests. Consider the way COVID masks have been quasi-repurposed as a way of both signalling you’re still coronavirus-aware and that you don’t want to be easily identifiable in a crowd of protesters lest the law firm considering hiring you puts two and two together. Two birds, one N95.

Then I read the author’s bio and my heart sunk a little:

“With over a decade of experience organizing on issues ranging from public health to Palestinian rights, they are most motivated by issues of disability justice, queer justice, tenants’ rights, and workers’ rights.”

The sinking was caused by the complete predictability of the messenger, and the effect this has on a message. Of course the person saying it’s wrong to ban masks on the subway is a pro-Palestinian activist who uses they/them pronouns.

This is unfortunate not because it’s wrong to be those things but because think of how much more valuable an anti-mask-ban op-ed would have been, had it come from someone who was like, I am a basic, centre-right normie who wants the hippies off my lawn but wears a mask on the subway for health reasons and doesn’t want them banned.

But would such a person write such an article? Culture-wars polarization being what it is, perhaps not.

The fashionable linking of all progressive causes post-Oct. 7 now has a name: The Omnicause.

A writer named Alysia Ames appears to have coined the term in its current usage eight months ago, in reference to a Columbia University lesbian group (pre-encampments) hosting a no-Zionists-allowed film night.

Well, the term has gained mainstream traction since then (today, it was introduced to readers of the Wall Street Journal, while its New York Times debut still awaits) and it may well be someone’s Word of the Year in six months’ time—if there’s a dictionary website that doesn’t fear a backlash for picking it.

Hadley Freeman is making her second appearance on the Bonjour Chai podcast later this week to discuss her delightful new article about The Omnicause and its fraught relationship with Jews.

“Gender, environment, Gaza: they’re all the same, even though LGBT people live under the threat of death in Palestine, and I haven’t heard too much from Hamas about the environment. According to The Omnicause, they’re all magically connected. It’s the fatberg of causes, and the fat gluing them all together is Western narcissism.”

The Omnicause explains why you can so reliably know by where someone stands on masks what they think about Israel, where they fall re: queer activism (though there are gay, lesbian, and bi people on both sides of this), climate, capitalism, khakis.

And yes, politics has always required coalition-building. Choosing a candidate to vote for has always involved compromise. What’s new, perhaps, is this idea that all causes are one. That your concern for the climate implies a particular stance on the Israel-Gaza war. That pro-Palestinian activism isn’t merely compatible with being LGBTQ but the only logical stance in such cases.

Before we got to The Omnicause, there was the “Current Thing,” a meme poking fun at the way a given concern (#MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Ukraine…) will be the only possible thing anyone could care about… until it’s displaced by some other all-encompassing issue. Omnicause seems to allow for less switching of gears. It’s not that you’ve ceased to care about the thing from last week, you have merely added a bumper sticker. You don’t need to leap onto the latest concern because it can be inferred from where you stand on this week’s big thing where you will on the next up.

Is there an anti-Omnicause? There is and there isn’t. There are right-wing equivalents, for sure. But if you move in liberal or progressive circles, you probably aren’t going to butt up much against those. You’re more likely to find yourself feeling politically adrift if you’re merely in favour of 80 percent of Omnicause items. But the minute you wonder if maybe you’re a conservative after all, you will learn what it is they think and realize no, it’s not that. You’re just a few notches to the right of Greta Thunberg in a keffiyeh and really, who cannot say as much?

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.