The Paradox of Tolerance


Three years ago, in a small classroom with bare walls and overflowing bookshelves, nestled in the foothills of Jerusalem, my friends and I spent one winter afternoon debating the lengths and limits of inclusion and tolerance.

“Classroom 2” by Hadassah Schneider

The 2016 election had come and gone with a fair bit of commotion, as we watched the results roll in from afar. We were all shocked with the outcome and spent our time considering the consequences of the election, for our community and America as a whole. So discussions like this one took place often.  

We were supposed to be studying the Book of Jeremiah, but had sidetracked the rabbi and drawn him into our debate.  

We volleyed back and forth in a muddled mix of broken English and grammatically incorrect Hebrew. He laughed at our idealism and naivete. In his heavy sabra accent, he told us: You can never include everyone. At some point you must draw a line in the sand and say: You and your opinions are not welcome here. 

We were 19 years old, full of youthful arrogance. We knew there had to be a counter argument that refuted him and validated us.

One girl, with her crisp British accent and deep purple lipstick, declared: The paradox of the tolerant is that they are intolerant of the intolerant. 

She sat back in her chair, proud of her retort. The rabbi smiled. He liked her answer. But he pointed out that she was still being intolerant, and therefore, she could not make the claim that she was being open-minded. Before we could argue further, he dove into the text and, in rapid-fire Hebrew, began that day’s lecture.


I am a few years and a few thousand miles removed from that classroom and that conversation. I am no longer 19 years old, and I no longer possess the same juvenile confidence I had back then. I see the world in many shades of gray, rather than in stark black and white. But I still think about our discussion and what it means to be tolerant of others, while still understanding that some opinions are not worth being tolerant of. 

“Intolerance” by Paul O’Rear/Flickr

If we want to be inclusive, does that mean being inclusive of everyone? Once we begin to exclude groups of people or specific opinions, don’t we become the same intolerant extremists we scorn?

We can all agree that neo-Nazis don’t belong in mainstream political dialogue. But what about issues or people that aren’t so clearly wrong or right?

I don’t have answers to these questions. But I still believe it’s worth thinking about.

Especially since such a large part of our political debate centers on tolerance vs intolerance and inclusion vs. exclusion. The Democratic party declares itself to be the party that welcomes everyone– a safe haven for those who have historically been excluded. But the Democrats don’t actually welcome everyone, they welcome those that agree with them. Which, to be fair, makes sense.

Someone who doesn’t agree with you doesn’t vote for you. And if someone’s political or religious beliefs stand in opposition to yours (and they’re not willing to entertain the possibility of compromise), it makes sense to want to exclude them from the conversation. 

But should we? Then we perpetuate the paradox.

We are tolerant. But not of those who are intolerant. Which makes us intolerant. 

We are inclusive. But not of those who exclude. Which makes us exclusionary. 

So what are we? Tolerant? Intolerant? Neither? Both? 

Before we point fingers at others for their level of tolerance (or lack thereof), I think we need to take a look at ourselves and try to understand where we draw our line in the sand, and why we draw it there.

One thought on “The Paradox of Tolerance

  1. This poses a lot of great questions! I often think about what you’ve written about, as someone who writes about the significance of dialogues we have on social media. I think about the ways marginalized communities need to be surrounded by people who look and think similarly, as a mode of survival. I also often consider the ways that I can leverage the privileges I have in certain spaces, by putting in emotional labor by engaging in dialogue with people who do not agree with me. It IS exhausting, but I sometimes think I have a responsibility to engage. Thank you for your post!

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