More and more, we hear from faculty and students about the need to have an “open tent” or a “big tent,” of ideas and opinions specifically, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While the nature of public discourse demands expressing a multitudes of ideas and opinions, the kind of openness espoused by this big tent idea is in fact myopic and limiting in its own narrow scope. The notion is sold as a non-binding position, when in reality those that sell it are simply uncomfortable or unwilling to take a firm position.
The big tent thus gives the impression of openness, but actually only caters to left-of-center views.
The genesis of this in the American Jewish community lies in our need to be open and pluralistic, which is generally a good thing but can become self-destructive.
While the Diaspora Jewish community is hardly monolithic when it comes to Israel, Israelis or Israeli policies, mainstream Jewish groups and organizations since 1948 have adopted the line of “supporting the democratically elected government of Israel – Left, Right or Center – and ensure the safety and security of its citizens.” Of course not blindly, but under the belief that a strong, united front benefits the Jewish community at large.
This is the line organizations such as Federations, AIPAC, AJC, ADL and others have adopted to show bi-partisan support for the democratically elected government in Israel. Yet, we are seeing today how this policy has been interpreted as a so-called right-of-center agenda.
That is, support for Israel is perceived as a right-wing agenda – this is a farce.
Those who make these claims have gone to extreme measures, even to a point of adopting the Palestinian narrative, as if to say that if we (Jews) will become more Palestinian than the Palestinians, peace in the Middle East would come about.
Thus, the extreme Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has made J Street seem like the height of moderation. As Isaac Deutscher formulated in his “non-Jewish Jew” regarding the State of Israel, “on a deeper, historical level the Jewish tragedy finds in Israel a dismal sequel. Israel’s leaders exploit in self-justification, and over-exploit Auschwitz and Treblinka; but their actions mock the real meaning of the Jewish tragedy.”
This has become the foundation for the adaptation and revisionism of the Arab-Israeli conflict among the Jewish Left, who feel the need to put aside their Jewishness to underscore their pluralism and openness.
Of late, these very issues were challenged by Hillel at Swarthmore College, where the students attempted to question Hillel’s own stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. To its credit, Hillel’s newly- appointed international president and CEO Eric Fingerhut correctly held his ground and made it clear to Swarthmore where the red lines are, stating: “Your resolution [Swarthmore] further includes the statement: ‘All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.’ This is simply not the case. Let me be very clear – ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.
“Hillel recognizes, of course, that ‘organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice’ violate these guidelines may well be welcomed on campus, according to the policies of the particular college or university. The Hillel on campus, however, may not partner with or host such groups or speakers.
This is entirely within our discretion as an organization, and we have clearly stated our intention to make these important decisions to protect our values and our critically important mission.
“Just as the university decides who will teach classes, and what organizations it will allow on campus, so Hillel will decide who will lead discussions in programs it sponsors and with whom it will partner.”
Consequently, Hillel was criticized for limiting the debate on Israel – as if debating Israel’s existence as a Jewish sovereign state fell within the realm of serious discourse. We have witnessed how the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel propeace” organization J Street has attempted to sell its agenda as the alternative to the “mainstream” and demand that the tent of the Jewish community stretch to include its views. The Jewish community for the most part opened itself to J Street. At least, until we saw the aggressively anti-Israel pro-boycott agenda advocated by many branches of J Street University begin to pop up demanding to be in the “big tent.”
Now we see the even more extreme anti-Israel so-called Jewish Voice for Peace demanding that it be in the tent via its “Open Hillel” campaign. Where does it stop? Does the “big tent” allow those who wish to burn it down in, with flammable liquids and lit torches? The core of the problem regarding the “big tent” philosophy is that it has no red lines; everyone should be included, even at the expense of Jewish identity and survival of the Jewish state.
Israelis who live and breathe in Israel are hardly uniform in their own views, however, even those in leftist circles believe that Israel has the right to exist as a state in some capacity, within the 1949 or post-1967 borders. As such, one can understand why Israelis do not fully understand what is happening in the Diaspora with regard to these matters, as they have never faced the challenge of debating Israel’s legitimacy in the environment we find on North American college campuses and many Jewish leftwing circles.
This is not to say that diversity of opinion and academic freedom should not be exercised. The difference is that there needs to be a differentiation between criticism and delegitimization, and between open discussion and self-inflicted annihilation.
Many, in their naiveté, have no grasp of how they fuel the anti-Israel groups on college campuses, groups like Jews for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Studies Association and others who use this message to validate their own agendas.
What is even more problematic are those groups within the Jewish community who believe that this kind of “discussion” will further peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Finally, making a case for Israel becomes increasingly more difficult when Israelis and Jews decide to adopt a Palestinian agenda that detracts from the real issue behind the conflict: Mutual recognition of one another. And above all, mainstream Jewish groups have a responsibility to their stakeholders to establish clear lines that they will uphold while affording their constituents a wide range of opinions that fall within the realm of legitimate debate and public discourse. Being a “big tent” doesn’t mean killing yourself to be in it.
The author is the executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).