Great numbers of American Jews care fervently for the welfare of the State of Israel, as do so many of the civic and religious organizations that represent them. The deep commitment to Israel's survival and wellbeing - in the face of enormous challenges - takes innumerable forms, among them material, political, and spiritual.
Alongside the many positive manifestations of American Jewish support for Israel, however, a divisive and troubling tendency has appeared in recent years. It takes the form of concerted organizational efforts to silence, or at least marginalize, voices within the Jewish community that express points of view - such as, perhaps, criticism of particular Israeli governmental policies, or support for Palestinian human rights - deemed out of step with the Jewish mainstream perspective on the Israel/Palestine situation. These efforts arise from a belief that the voicing of certain views by Jews or Jewish groups is inimical to Israel's interests, as particular organizations or individuals see them, and, hence, should be suppressed.
The suppression takes various forms. It includes charges that the speakers are anti-Semitic, or are promoting anti-Semitism, or are "self-hating Jews." Speaking engagements are boycotted. And Jewish organizations that express these unpopular views may be deemed "marginal" or "extremist" and denied a place at the Jewish organizational table.
This mindset, and the tactics implemented in support of it, are wrong. Dissent and debate have always been an integral part of the life of the Jewish community, and the fact that the subject is Israel should not alter that norm. Indeed, in Israel debate on such topics is far more robust than it is here in the United States. Israelis apparently recognize, better than their American counterparts, that the expression of disparate viewpoints enhances the quality of thinking about an issue, even if solutions remain elusive. As the Jewish-Arab conflicts of the past 100 years - including the 60 since the founding of Israel - have shown, no quick and easy answer has leapt off the page, and no single viewpoint epitomizing the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people has emerged triumphant. But the kind of deep understanding needed to tackle difficult problems is far more likely to emerge in a room resounding with vibrant debate, rather than one in which distasteful or provocative views are, by fiat or innuendo, left unsaid.
A RECENT example comes to mind: How many American Jewish organizations, intending to claim a "place at the table," would venture to host an evening with former President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter, author of the much-reviled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid? One need only recall the uproar when Jewish-identified Brandeis University, located in the liberal bastion that is Greater Boston, offered the stage to Carter in January, 2007.
Carter is, of course, back in the news, this time on a private peace mission to the Middle East that included a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. The Bush administration has chided Carter, and the Olmert government has effectively boycotted him. And yet Haaretz published on April 15 an editorial entitled "Our Debt to Jimmy Carter," acknowledging his contribution to bringing a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, and declaring that for this he "deserves the respect reserved for royalty for the rest of his life." There's not much likelihood that any American Jewish newspaper would even consider penning those words.
The intractable plight of the Israeli and Palestinian people cries out for all the help that insiders - and outsiders - can bring, toward finding answers that will work, albeit imperfectly, for both peoples. An answer that serves Israelis but not Palestinians is doomed to fail. All views - offered in good faith and with recognition of the histories and current realities, and hopes and fears of each group - should be heard and listened to.
They should be debated, dissected, and criticized. Ultimately, some ideas will be set aside as untenable. But none of these viewpoints, and none of their proponents, should be blacklisted or ridiculed or considered unclean. Thoughtful, respectful, inclusive discussion of the Israel/Palestine situation is the norm the American Jewish community ought to champion, without litmus tests for participation, or topics excised as taboo. The current exclusionary approach betrays the earnest pursuit of the truth, and compromises our ability to find badly-needed answers.
The writer is an attorney and president of the Boston chapter and on the National Executive Board of Workmen's Circle, a 100-year old Jewish communal organization committed to promoting social justice and the celebration of Jewish/Yiddish education and culture.