For over five years, I have been honored to be a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, and for some 15 years, I’ve participated in numerous General Assemblies put on by the Jewish Federations of North America. Historically, these events have been of vital importance in bringing together Jewish leaders of varied views for important decorous debate and dialogue.
This year, the culture of respect usually upheld at these events was shattered by a small group of disruptors trying to impose their views. Yelling, screaming, using bullhorns and worse were all tactics to try to shut down any kind of debate on crucial issues facing Israel and world Jewry.
The disruptions came from just one side of the political spectrum: the Left. It was spearheaded by leaders of the Reform movement, mostly from Israel and a few from overseas. Guards were deployed at the entrances and at the plenary of the Jewish Agency board meeting.
MK Rothman was the target of protests
At the larger GA conference, numerous security guards were stationed at the session I attended on the Law of Return. In both cases, it was the presence of MK Simcha Rothman, an architect of the judicial overhaul legislation, that was being protested. At each conference, he spoke with patience, dignity and decency. The disruptors’ goal was to silence him and muzzle any debate.
For years, whenever a Liberal Jewish leader felt that an expressed view of an Orthodox rabbi, or right-wing leader was racist or incited violence, they spoke out with harsh criticism. This time, it was they who incited and tried to intimidate and forcibly silence those who have differing views from their own. Rothman was forced to slip in and out of sessions surrounded by guards.
Will Reform leaders have the courage to chastise those in their movement who participated and orchestrated these outrageous actions? Do they really believe in free speech and open debate, or are only their voices the ones to be heard? Time and again they have rebuked those on the other side of the spectrum, demanding self-reflection and change. Do they have the courage to do the same when their leaders and members cross the line?
The disruptors justify their actions by saying that opposing viewpoints put democracy at risk, but in truth, they are the ones that imperil democracy by stifling debate. One demonstrator told me that he is fighting for the values he believes in, and that justifies using intimidation. He asked me what would have to occur to bring me to protest. My answer was simple: If a person is advocating violence against another then I would protest. Absent that, free speech and respectful dialogue are essential.
PERSONALLY, THIS has been a great struggle for me in these settings. Over the years I have been deeply offended by many statements and proposals I have heard at many Jewish leadership conferences; such as when Liberal Jewish leaders claim to speak for all of world Jewry or when they take positions antithetical to Jewish law and tradition when I know there are millions of Diaspora Jews who feel differently. These kinds of disingenuous statements are basically the norm at these conventions.
Or when the views of religious Jews are debased. I was offended when the one of panelists at the GA advocated for Jewish identity to be defined by Amos Oz and Gershom Scholem, two ideologues who reject all norms of Jewish tradition. The list is long and painful. Still, I will never try to shut down these opinions with force. I engage with people in these forums in an effort to present a view rooted in tradition with the hope of creating bridges of understanding.
But if the Jewish Left insists on shutting down those who do not agree with them (they scream, yell and intimidate), the chance for any meaningful dialogue will be lost. It could only devolve into a policy being upheld by who shouts louder or who is more violent.
However, if the leaders of liberal groups have the courage to speak out against such practices and make it clear that those who have engaged in these kinds of actions have crossed the line, there is hope for democracy. They have been swift to censure those sitting opposite them. Will they face inward and apply that standard to those sitting next to them?
The writer, a rabbi, is a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency. These views are strictly his own and do not represent the Jewish Agency. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.