When rape crisis centres drape themselves in (metaphorical) keffiyehs: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the broken woke-liberal alliance

When I read that the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre is in hot water after deciding to pick a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no, not the side of Israeli women sexually assaulted on Oct. 7, the only part of this story that surprised me at all was that there would be a consequence.

Was I surprised that a group advocating for rape victims—a group whose listed postal code (no street address is provided on their website, for the safety of the women and others who need their services) suggests it would be the one for my own bit of west-end downtown Toronto—would take the stance it did? You must be joking. It’s not even the first time something like this has happened—remember when the director of the University of Alberta’s sexual assault centre took a stand, and which stand, exactly, it was?

This story hits home more than usual, given the location. I guess I must simply go about my business as a woman, hoping my middle-aged self is sufficiently uninteresting to men with violent inclinations (not that this is always how it works), because my Jewish self sure wouldn’t be heading their way. But no, I cannot say I am mind-blown, at this point in time, when any entity purporting to be on the side of social justice refuses to consider Jews a marginalized group under attack, or indeed human beings with rights.

For all the talk of a revitalized Jewish left, all those young North American Jewish progressives who’ve gone off the very idea of ethnonationalism (unless, I suppose, it’s Palestinians doing it), who are horrified that Israel is not a hippie commune or even Sweden, it seems unavoidable that this moment is nudging many Jews—and no, not just or even primarily Jews—in a rather different political direction.

I will speak for myself first: I cannot say that on Oct. 6, I was antizionist. I’m an American-Canadian Jew who has been to Israel several times, who read Theodor Herzl and his ilk back in grad school and found it all most persuasive, but whose years of following the goings-on of Israel itself a bit dispiriting: too aggressive militarily, too much power given to religious interest groups, and don’t get me started on the civil marriage issue. It isn’t be run at all the way I would do things, was my thinking, but also, I’m not Israeli, it’s not for me to decide, so it’s fair to say I did not give it much thought.

Fast-forward to today, and I am running around my residential area of Toronto draped in an Israeli flag, turning to all keffiyeh‘d passersby and saying Am Yisrael Chai. Maybe I am not doing-doing these things, like the local Sharpie flyer-annotator, but I am thinking about it, even while keeping, in my mind, some good old-fashioned criticisms of Israel. I may not want Netanyahu in power, but I bought chives in Toronto last week that were a product of Israel. That’ll really show BDS, let alone Hamas.

So no, I am not anyone’s social-justice-warrior-turned-conservative, just another centre-left, liberal bore. But insofar as this moment has nudged me, it has been… I’m not even sure if to the right is accurate, as my policy positions themselves (where I even have them! I’m no strategy wonk) haven’t changed. It’s more that I see less of a need to give the benefit of the doubt to those claiming to be on the side of the good, be it a hyperlocal rape crisis centre or the United Nations.

I will now turn to the wider world of not-me, and to the impact of Oct. 7 on social-justice-oriented progressivism—wokeness—more generally. It’s certainly been interesting to see the extent to which this moment has seen realignments on that front. The usual signage—inclusive Pride flag, BLM, signs requesting that the city not demolish homeless encampments—has not, on the whole, incorporated pro-Palestine motifs. There’s a sanitized version of radicalism that made headway in bourgeois spheres across North America, and this worked, to a point, with some causes. This one is posing some problems. Why? Because the conflict itself is too complicated.

I have been trying to articulate this and getting nowhere. Thankfully someone else did so, and that someone is Stephen Marche:

“Progressive politics as it has come to exist in the social-media era has lived off the dopamine hit of moral clarity, but the Middle East is the graveyard of moral clarity. Whatever side you pick in the Israel-Gaza conflict, you are on the side of monsters.”

Indeed. I was thinking of something along these lines recently, when a thread on X went viral—the entire account has since vanished, as will happen after a pile-on—wherein a young activist (?) writing under the handle @JustAPoeticMess did a long thread of all these different fiction writers whose work one must boycott because Palestine. The authors’ alleged crimes were things like supporting a two-state solution and having not specifically condemned Israel in their posts, or being published in Hebrew, or—randomly—having created unrealistic Latino characters in their work.

The vibe of the thread was extremely 2020 if not earlier, the tone very much one of someone who assumes an audience that will be grateful to learn that their faves are problematic. Oh I’m so glad you let me know that Neil Gaiman isn’t all-in for Hamas, that’s it, I am removing him from my bookshelf. Instead (or, I suppose, in addition), they got an avalanche of people calling them a book-burning Nazi. Shalom Auslander might not approve of the critics’ language, but what’s interesting here is less the Nazi analogizing than the fact that there’s a new ambiguity surround who the good guys even are. The audience for purity politics of this sort is shrinking, or was maybe never so great to begin with.

And these replies were indicative of the reactions it received:

Stephen Marche describes a situation wherein Canadian institutions have—with the seeming encouragement of the government, and of right-thinking normies—embraced a kind of radical politics that has not caught on in the general population. He points to statistics indicating a rightward turn, in Canada and beyond. What felt like a consensus among everyone reasonable, that whatever the furthest-left stance was, this is both the moral and the sensible thing to think about any given issue, isn’t holding water.

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.