For the sake of Zion

American Jewry must speak out on behalf of Israel, in public, in private, advocates in word and in deed.

NOA REPRESENTED Israel, but she’s too controversial for some American Jews. The author looks at poisonous discussions about Israel in the Diaspora (photo credit: REUTERS)
NOA REPRESENTED Israel, but she’s too controversial for some American Jews. The author looks at poisonous discussions about Israel in the Diaspora
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Americans, as Jews, and as American Jews, open dialogue and dissent sits at the heart of who we are. One need only think of a page of Talmud, the debates of the rabbis arrayed on every page, minority opinions codified alongside the majority, a veritable celebration of a robust generational conversation. It is by way of the free and unhindered exchange of ideas whereby we seek to arrive at truth.
As Louis Brandeis famously stated: “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.”
The present challenge American Jewry faces is the degree to which we are capable of housing an open and civil dialogue regarding Israel.
Our generation, born into an era of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years of exile, into an empowered American Jewry that can advocate on behalf of Israel as an expression of our Jewish identity, is also a generation that, barring a course correction, risks waking up to discover that the very state that should be our source of unity and strength has become the thing that divides us.
Our challenge, thank God, is not formal suppression of speech. Jews can, if we so choose, say what we want, how we want and when we want on the subject of Israel. The concern rather is a nefarious effort from within the Jewish community to label certain pro-Israel positions as beyond the bounds of acceptable communal discourse. A muzzling effort of sorts that precludes the possibility of our community actualizing either our American or Jewish ideal of the free exchange of ideas.
In the most basic terms, what is taking place is something called the “black and white fallacy” – a “you’re with us or against us” approach whereby nuanced arguments are framed as “either/or” choices between extremes. “Either support the policies of the Israeli government or you are a self-hating Jew.” Or alternatively, “Every settler in the West Bank is a human rights-abusing colonialist.” No longer a place of robust debate, the American Jewish community has become an Orwellian series of mutually exclusive “amen corners” that refuse to dignify the views held by others.
A recent example: last week a Detroit synagogue was forced to cancel a concert by Israeli performer Noa due to security concerns resulting from the fact that she has given expression to left-wing political positions, including support for a two-state resolution and peaceful co-existence with Palestinians.
A shameful incident for American Jewry – the threat of physical violence from within our people against an Israeli artist who is an advocate for peace.
Most muzzlings, thankfully, do not happen under the threat of violence.
Altogether frightening is the increasingly frequent effort, online, in print or in person, to demonize and delegitimize a point of view not one’s own by questioning a person’s bona fides. It happens all the time to lay and professional leaders in the Jewish community. Certain elements of the Jewish community have discovered that more effective than debating someone’s ideas is to question a Jew’s Zionism by way of cyber-bullying or twitter-shaming.
If, after all, I can pathologize a point of view by shaming a person into silence, or fudging the question of someone’s politics with their Zionism, then why wouldn’t I? It is such a laborious process to argue a point when one need only undermine a person’s loyalty, or worse, humanity.
Nobody’s hands are totally clean – both the Right and the Left are guilty of “shouting down” their opposition. What can and can’t be said, who is and isn’t allowed into the pro-Israel conversation, convention or conference. A concerted effort by way of ad hominem attacks, misrepresentation, verbal castigation and otherwise to stigmatize anyone whose views extend beyond the bounds of what the radical extremes deem acceptable.
The emergent vitriol and toxicity is not only beneath our ideals of free speech but also a danger to the health of American-Jewry, Israel and the all-important relationship between the two. If we are really committed to supporting Israel, then we must know that is by way of encouraging free speech, not suppressing it whereby truth will be found.
Notwithstanding the fact that anti-Zionists and antisemites do indeed exist (often cloaked behind the language of human rights and the politics of intersectionality), anyone with a head on their shoulders knows full well that the black and white option of “with us or against us” is not only intellectually lazy but also an impediment to the very transformations of thought and by extension policy that we all seek.
With the parties in the Middle East becoming increasingly polarized and intransigent, our discourse needs to become more, not less vigorous – all the with the hope of discovering and spreading truths that can only emerge by way of robust and respectful exchange of ideas.
The issue is not merely one of some abstract search for truth. To delegitimize dissenting views is counterproductive in that it serves to narrow the pro-Israel base as that of our adversaries expands. Israel and the pro-Israel community do not lack for enemies, but when we choose to fight within our own camp as opposed to fighting the real bad guys, it is they, not us, who have the last laugh. We need to be able to operate with people who have different views than our own, to have what the rabbis call “a heart of many rooms.” We dare not cede the right to the megaphone to the radical elements of our community – those individuals who prize the rightness of their own views over the well-being of the Jewish People as a whole.
Finally, we would do well to realize that it will be through our failure to embrace a plurality of views whereby we will lose the next generation of would-be pro-Israel advocates.
Yes, the leadership of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement consists of numerous haters of Israel, but as a recent ADL-Reut study shows, its long tail includes bystanders, undecideds and those whose love for Israel prompts them to openly protest the policies of the Israeli government. We do ourselves and more importantly our children a great disservice by lumping all progressives into one basket of anti-Zionist deplorables.
To put it another way: if you tell a typical American Jewish college student that there is only one way to be pro-Israel, and she or he must take some loyalty oath to that view or be labeled a boycott supporter or self-hating Jew, then what do you think that student will do? My hunch? That student will see a Jewish community willfully denying reality as they perceive it, choose universal values over particular ones and check out of the pro-Israel and Jewish conversation altogether.
As stated in the aforementioned report, the pro-Israel network needs to acknowledge the vital significance of those willing to fight delegitimization among progressive groups even as they criticize Israeli government policies. Not only is it not true, not only is it a form of schoolyard bullying, but it is plain old bad policy to demand an overly narrow definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.
If we truly want the coming generation to be vocal and adroit defenders of the State of Israel then they need to know that the pro-Israel community is one that will encourage, not discourage debate. Of course there are limits; not every view need be dignified and we must be careful not to provide ammunition to the delegitimizers. We must nevertheless encounter the narrative that is not our own, for only in doing so will be able to defend our side, understand the humanity of the other and yes, hopefully, build bridges of understanding into the future.
“Leman Zion lo echesheh,” “for the sake of Zion I will not be silent.”
American Jewry must speak out on behalf of Israel, in public, in private, advocates in word and in deed. We must also speak out on behalf of those seeking to speak out. We must defend their right to openly express their views, even when, especially when, those views are not our own.
To engage in dialogue and debate – this is our people’s strength, the secret to who we are and it is an ideal worth defending when we see it breached. The measure of our love for Israel will be found not only in our advocacy for the Jewish state, but in our ability to dignify the wide definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. May we all find the wisdom, patience and strength to make for ourselves a heart of many rooms and may the people and the State of Israel be strengthened by way of our efforts.
The author is rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue.