Freedom of debate goes both ways

What could be less Jewish than that?

DEPUTY TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) campaigns atop Mount Kabir near the Eilon Moreh settlement (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
DEPUTY TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) campaigns atop Mount Kabir near the Eilon Moreh settlement
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Here we go again. Once more, American Jewish leaders are outraged at the disdain shown to them by Israeli government leaders. Deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely’s recent comments are nothing new or surprising. This is certainly not the first time a member of the current Netanyahu administration – including the prime minister himself – has demonstrated disdain for a large swath of American Jewry. Hotovely’s comments reflect an ongoing trend of delegitimizing any disagreement, a trend that threatens both Israel’s democratic and its Jewish character.
The accuracy of Hotovely’s comments is not particularly important. Sure, there are American Jews who serve in the IDF (I was one of them), although the numbers are probably not that large. Of course, there are many American Jews throughout the generations who have served proudly in the US military. But this does not change the thrust of her argument. It’s the same tired argument that is trotted out every time Jews in the Diaspora dare to disagree with Israeli government policy – you don’t know what we’re going through here, so keep your opinions to yourself.
But really, Hotovely is not opposed to American Jews voicing opinions on Judaism and Israel. She is opposed to them voicing opinions that differ from hers.
Certainly, Jews from the Diaspora are not claiming a right to vote in Israeli elections. They do not pay taxes here, and do not bear the full cost of Israeli defense policies. But Jews from around the world identify deeply and profoundly with this place, and with the people and tradition that this country professes to represent. When the Jewish state enacts policies relating to religious pluralism, minority rights and refugee rights, those are a reflection on the Jewish character of the state, and on our Jewish values as a people. And when Jews from around the world view those policies as directly contradicting their own deeply held Jewish values, they have a right – even a responsibility – to speak up.
Argument and disagreement is and has always been a fundamental part of Jewish thought. The Mishna tells that “an argument for the sake of heaven is destined to endure; and argument not for the sake of heaven shall not endure.”
An argument for the sake of heaven is one in which each side respects the other, and despite their disagreement, each side still honors the dignity and humanity of the other. The example given is of the sages Hillel and Shammai, who differed dramatically on a long list of issues. But the Talmud tells that despite their disagreements, their students still married into families from the other side and, significantly, would dine in the homes of followers of the other school, even when their utensils were deemed impure by their own side.
BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change is creating a Judaism that shares the best of Jewish thought and values from Israel and abroad. This Judaism both prizes the beauty and richness of our culture and traditions, as well as our profound moral tradition and commitment to social justice. And most importantly, it prizes the great Jewish tradition of debate – a debate that brings us together in spite of, or even to celebrate, our differences.
When Tzipi Hotovely negates the rights of all Jews to pray in their own way, and to profess their view of Jewish values, she is not only arguing against the freedom of debate that is so central to the liberal-democratic values of the State of Israel, she is arguing against the vigorous debate that has underpinned Jewish thought since its very beginning.
The cancellation of Hotovely’s speech at Princeton Hillel is a complex matter – Hotovely’s past statements on any number of subjects have been worthy of condemnation, and free speech must have limits. But belittling the deeply held values of American Jews is certainly not part of an “argument for the sake of heaven.” On the contrary, as American Jews can, and frequently do, learn a lot about the proud and vibrant Jewish society we have built here in Israel, we in Israel can and should learn from our sisters and brothers abroad.
American Jews have been fighting their own wars – they have, by the way, served in the US military – but the Jewish values that American Jews have incubated over time have also found expression in other important battles. Jewish leaders marched with African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and some Jews even gave their lives in the fight for full equality in the United States. Still today, Jewish organizations and volunteers are at the front lines in fighting for social justice and poverty alleviation. Just as Jews around the world seek to learn from the awe-inspiring, vibrant Jewish society that has been built in Israel, Tzipi Hotovely would be well served to listen to the deep and meaningful values in Diaspora communities.
I bring up these examples not to bask in the admirable work of those who happen to also be Jewish, but because this record of social action reflects deeply-held Jewish values for large swaths of the Jewish people all over the world – the equal value of human life, a commitment to care for the poor and the sick and the foreigner, and to repair the world. When Hotovely and her ilk continue to promote policies at odds with those values, those Jews will continue to speak up. Yet rather than speak to the deep and meaningful differences in values and opinions between American Jews and the current Israeli government, she rejects their right to have an opinion. What could be less Jewish than that?
The author is director of the International Programs Department at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.