By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)
For our ancestors who lived in Christian lands during the Middle Ages, there were few scarier moments in time than when Jewish leaders were summoned for public disputations. These were semi-regularly scheduled debates where the entire Jewish community was pulled out to witness their communal head of affairs go toe-to-toe with antisemitic challengers. Often the leading Rabbi was selected to debate a Christian on the theological merits of the faith.
To larger Christiandom, the debate was a simple matter with the desired results known aforehand, i.e. “Which religion is right? Christianity.” Followed by, “Jews must accept our Messiah, leave our land, or die.”
Oftentimes, royalty would sit in attendance of these show trials, and the result of the debate could foment a populist fervor amongst the uneducated persons in attendance. This ritual rudely segregated Medieval society and cast Jews as unwanted outsiders. Not every Christian held to these tropes - it was often only the Dominicans who were zealous persecutors of Jews, while local Christian authorities often had no choice but to accommodate the Dominicans’ religious fanaticism.
Most famously, Nachmanides, known as the “RamBaN,” lived a mostly untroubled life in Spain in the late 12th and early 13th century, until he was called forth for a famous dispute. As it so often goes, his challenger, Pablo Christiani, was a Jewish convert who sought to convert the Jews of Spain by debating with RamBaN, but was unsuccessful.
Over the course of the heated disputation, RamBaN convinced King James the First of Aragon of Judaism’s truthfulness and integrity, for which the King rewarded him with precious stones. This did not satisfy the Dominicans who encouraged the debate, and they pressured the authorities to exile RamBaN.
For his service publicly defending and protecting the honor of the Jewish people, he was ultimately rewarded with homelessness. At the end of his life, he sought refuge in Muslim lands. He ended his life in The Holy Land after founding the RamBaN synagogue, the longest continuous synagogue in Jerusalem (only interrupted in the 1948 War).
In our contemporary world, we do not have kings overseeing religious disputations. And comparable events to these debates are seldom televised to the majority of our citizens.
Instead, we have chat rooms and Twitter threads that pronounce indictments and assertions against the Jewish faith and Zionism. We do not have democratically elected rabbis to guard the Jewish faith on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook - instead we have social media influencers, who by merit of their thick-skinned chutzpah, righteous indignation, and catchy viral accessibility, deflect the digital pogroms with their firm conviction of “Ahavat Yisrael.” These gedolim are solely armed with their dexterity in using technological devices of the 21st century and their commitment to learning.
These leaders of tomorrow step into the breach to do what prophets have done since Biblical times; they defend Am Yisrael from those who would seek to destroy us. Sometimes, these leaders are alienated from their career or social circles because of their uncompromising Judaism. In the same vein as RamBaN’s disputation with the Dominicans, may we all learn from the pride these thought leaders impart. Below, in no particular order, are the Jewish thought leaders it behooves us to follow.
Hillel Neuer - This Canadian-born international lawyer is head of UN’s Human Rights Watch, and has been published in the International Herald Tribune, Juriste International, Commentary, The New Republic, Christian Science Monitor, and the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs. When it comes to international politics, Hillel is at home calling out the double standards attempting to delegitimize Israel today. He is on the front lines advocating against anti-Israel bias, and can be found at his professional Instagram and Twitter at @hillelneuer.
Eve Barlow - A music and culture reviewer from Scotland, with too many publications to post, Eve is quick to defend Jews around the world from the dangerous misapprehensions from celebrities in Hollywood. Eve is inspiring hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens to embrace Judaism without the dogma of faith. For her service to Judaism, she has been targeted and removed from many progressive spaces. This self-appointed atheist defender of Judaism has loudly and courageously reshaped the landscape of Jewish activism with her plucky and indomitable spirit. Found on Instagram and Twitter at @evebarlow.
Rudy Rochman - Made famous through his college campus viral videos where he publicly debates anti-Zionist groups, Rudy’s advocacy is international. Determined to bring self-determination to Jews and Palestinians, Rudy is a brilliant speaker and moderator. He was recently arrested and detained in Ethiopia while filming We Were Never Lost, a documentary on the unknown Jewish communities from all four corners of the Earth. Found on Instagram at rudy_Israel and Twitter at @rudy_rochman.
Blake Flayton - One of the founders of The New Zionist Congress and a regular contributor to The Jewish Journal. Blake’s contribution to the Jewish scene goes far beyond iconic style points in his Instagram posts. He’s ready to defend Judaism against right-wingers and the “Squad” alike, and is a stalwart champion of Israel’s LGBTQ rights. You can find Blake on Twitter at @blakeflayton.
Hen Mazzig - Son of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees, Hen Mazzig has been featured in Newsweek, LA Times, NBC, and the BBC. Hen educates mainstream sources on the persecution MENA (Middle Eastern North African) Jews have faced and why modern history cannot rewrite Israel out of existence. His catchy infographics were the most potent antidote to the drivel shared by ill-informed celebrities during the latest Israeli-Palestinian clash. Found on Instagram at @henmazzig.
While there are many more young and aspiring Jews who contribute to the wellbeing of “klal Yisrael,” above are a few of my top picks. Within a month of following these contributors you will enter a super highway connecting you to Israeli politics, informal talmud lessons, cultural jokes, and the reality of diaspora antisemitism. These guides will informally introduce you to JTwitter, or the part of the internet sanctioned as the Jew-o-sphere.
Back in the Middle Ages we had rabbis to stand up for our public spaces and defend the honor of our faith. In today's world, rabbis still provide the spiritual backbone, but these digital warriors are out in the trenches. When we read about the great defenders of the Jewish past, let us not forget the great defenders of our Jewish future.
Am I missing an important Jewish advocate? In the name of RamBaN, who do you follow on social media?