Grumpy Old Man: Any speech is better than none

It’s bad enough when we spend our time talking at people and not to them, but outright censorship – especially the type that’s bought and paid for – is far worse.

Peter Beinart 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peter Beinart 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I often spend as much time poring over readers’ comments on websites and blogs as I do reading the news items and blog postings themselves.
Called “talkbacks” in the lingua franca of the virtual media, these comments occasionally are quite thoughtful and enlightening. Too often, though, they are indubitably idiotic – at best mildly entertaining, at worst nauseating.
Unlike letters to the editor, which are closely vetted for purposes of inclusion, talkbacks, if moderated at all, are vetted only for purposes of exclusion. This usually means a quick perusal for messages of hatred or profanity, which the moderator spikes. Everything else, including excruciating grammar and atrocious spelling, is generally let through.
When times are quiet, the diehards are out there sucking up to their political or ideological idols and dumping on their adversaries. But when current events get hot, as with Operation Pillar of Defense, the talkback sections brim with everyday Jills and Joes. Some of these comments offer insightful utterances, but most consist of simple palaver indicating little more than naivety or outright ignorance.
Also, the majority of the talkbacks on a given website generally reflect the line taken by the hosting publication or blogger. After all, we tend to be drawn to what makes us feel good. A publication or blog that reflects our point of view vindicates us for the way we see things. It makes us feel smart. How can anyone not like that? More than occasionally, though, a rabble-rouser shows up. The give-and-take can be spirited, but mostly the antagonists talk at each other rather than to each other. It’s the electronic version of “Do not!” “Do too!” or, as my sister and I used to say to each other’s put-downs when we were kids, “I know you are but what am I?” There’s often not much in the way of respectful interaction, let alone interaction. But the important thing is that we know what people are thinking, even if we think it’s not very thoughtful at all. It’s simply part of the price we pay for free speech.
THERE WAS no free speech last week, however – no, not in the talkbacks, but when Peter Beinart, who is organized American Jewry’s latest enfant terrible primarily for advocating the boycott of goods made in West Bank settlements, was barred from speaking at an Atlanta, Georgia, Jewish community center that was hosting a popular book fair.
An associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York, as well as a writer, blogger and former editor of The New Republic, Beinart, who is Jewish, is the author of The Crisis of Zionism. I have not read it, but anyone who closely follows Israel and Diaspora issues knows that the book takes mainstream American Jewry to task for actively promoting, or at the very least quietly acquiescing to, right-wing Israeli policies, including those that have the clear potential for curtailing democracy. Of greater importance, though, Beinart warns that this behavior is turning off – and away – many in the next generation of American Jews, who will not be so accommodating.
I could understand the Atlanta JCC’s ban if we were talking about Jewish bloggers like Richard Silverstein (“Tikun Olam”), Philip Weiss (“Mondoweiss”) or some of those who blog on “+972.” They’re not from a different planet; they’re from a far-off universe. But Peter Beinart? C’mon.
Granted, “Open Zion,” the blog he edits over at The Daily Beast website, hosts some unpalatable comments and even commentators. But whether you agree with him or not, he himself speaks of legitimate issues with earnestness, sense and clarity. From what I’ve heard, The Crisis of Zionism certainly does this, as I myself found out during a recent visit to the US, where I spoke with young, committed Jews who were considerably less than sanguine about troubling trends in Israeli policies.
To their credit, the Atlanta book fair organizers, in noting on their web page that the Beinart session had been canceled, mentioned an alternative venue where the author would be speaking under the auspices of the dovish Israel advocacy group J Street. They even included a link to J Street’s website for those interested in obtaining tickets. (The event was quickly sold out.) Meanwhile, the president of the JCC, Steven Cadranel, was reported by The New York Times as having hinted that it was certain people who had made a fuss about Beinart. “As leaders of our agency, we want the [Jewish community] center to always serve as a safe place for honest debate,” he was quoted as saying, “but we want to balance that against the concerns of our patrons.”
By “patrons,” Cadranel clearly meant the wealthy Jews who fund many of the JCC’s activities, or perhaps even those who funded the facility’s very construction.
Such donations help the Jewish community thrive and maintain its vibrancy. But they also buy the title “Jewish leader,” and with some of these “leaders,” the money comes with strings attached.
One might ask what there is about “a safe place for honest debate” that requires “balance.” Granted, not all of us define “honest” or “safe” in the same way. But one or more of the big donors in Atlanta apparently views Beinart as more than just your garden-variety self-hating Jew, seeing him as dishonest or, a lot more ominously, dangerous. Or both.
This goes well beyond the typical Jewish worry about airing the community’s dirty laundry in public, rocking the boat or other such tribal aphorisms. And it is far worse than those talkback sections that become irrelevant when so many commentators talk at people rather than to them. It is censorship bought and paid for in the same way that so many Diaspora Jewish community members – actually, members of any community – buy their entree into positions of “leadership.”
LET’S FORGET for a moment the rockets that have been raining down on Israel. We, as committed Jews and Zionists, are currently confronted with myriad problems, ranging from mounting questions about the legitimacy of Israel in the eyes of the world and the definition of “who is a Jew,” all the way to Jewish continuity itself. These are existential issues. They deserve our attention. More importantly, other people’s legitimate comments on these issues deserve our attention and therefore deserve to be heard.
We cannot allow others to dictate what is voiced and what is not, especially when these people have gained their power of veto with money or other forms of influence rather than an unqualified ability to lead a community.
And another thing. J Street, something of a fringe organization in the eyes of organized American Jewry, is inching closer to the mainstream by virtue of its growing ranks and its mature and measured stands on numerous issues. Yet it would have spoken volumes had Beinart’s alternative Atlanta speaking engagement been coordinated and sponsored by a group whose mainstream credentials were unassailable and, unlike clearly partisan organizations, provided a true umbrella for the entire Jewish community.
It might have been busy in Baltimore at this year’s somewhat underwhelming annual GA conference, but the Jewish Federations of North America, which says on its website that it “represents and supports 155 Jewish Federations and over 300 independent Jewish communities,” would have been as ecumenical as any a place to start. That’s because federations and Jewish communities are meant to serve all Jews, even if some members prefer to describe others as being full of self-hatred.