U.S. Jews Fighting Wrong Battle
As rockets rain down on Israel, an Atlanta JCC bans Peter Beinart. When did we become so narrow-minded?
This has been a frightening and sad week in Israel. First, Hamas unleashed 160 rockets on Israeli towns. Then the IDF responded, and Israeli civilians were ordered—and many remain—in bomb shelters. And as was almost inevitable, some who did not heed the warnings were killed by rocket fire. At this writing, the end is nowhere in sight.
If there can be said to be a silver lining in this horrendous situation, it’s in the broad range of support for the prime minister’s decision to protect his citizens. “Labor, Kadima, Olmert, Livni back government’s air assault on Hamas,” reported the Times of Israel. But it shouldn’t take war for Jews to acknowledge that we’re utterly dependent on each other, no matter how deeply we may disagree.
Far from the fighting, the conversation among American Jews about Israel has become so toxic that it’s often impossible even for people who are allies to listen to each other. Not long ago, I was invited by a major national Jewish organization to give a lecture in the United States. Soon after, the person who’d invited me called me in Jerusalem to tell me that the major sponsors of the event had pulled their support and their funding because I’d signed a letter asking the Prime Minister Netanyahu to ignore a legal report claiming that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not technically an occupation.
“You’re not embarrassed?” I asked her. She couldn’t understand why she should possibly be embarrassed. She explained that her organization believed that the report was important for defending Israel’s international legitimacy. “That’s fine,” I said, “and I think that adopting it would do us great damage. But so what? Doesn’t the fact that we disagree make it all the more critical that we talk to each other? Or have we reached the point where your supporters will listen only to those with whom they agree completely? Your sponsors based their decision to invite me on a record of 15 years of writing and speaking. I do one thing that they don’t approve of, and they pull the plug?”
That’s precisely what they did. I ended up giving the lecture, but the sponsors never restored their support.
They represent, I believe, a scary anti-intellectual trend in the Jewish community. These people believe that an increasingly narrow tent will best protect the state of Israel, and so they continue to move the tent’s pegs. But they are doing just the opposite of bolstering the Jewish state: They weaken Israel and make it more vulnerable because they exclude enormous swaths of the community that we need—particularly on a week like this.
The latest example of this narrowing happened this week in Atlanta, where one of the country’s major Jewish book fairs canceled an appearance by the writer Peter Beinart. “As leaders of our agency, we want the center to always serve as a safe place for honest debate, but we want to balance that against the concerns of our patrons,” said Steven Cadranel, president of the Marcus Jewish Community Center. I have no unique knowledge of what actually transpired, but this has become an old story: Many Jewish organizations have been pushed into such corners by donors who refused to contribute to festivals or organizations who will host people whose views they find reprehensible. Jewish community professionals regularly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
I disagree with Peter Beinart on more issues than I can count. I was appalled by his oped in the Times calling for a boycott on some Israelis, and I found his most recent book far too accommodating of Israel’s enemies and unfairly critical of Israel. I think he’s completely wrong when he asserts the occupation is the core cause of Israel’s marginality. But his views represent those of a not inconsiderable swath of American Jewry, so I agreed to debate him at Columbia University. Our debate was fun—and far more important, it was civil.
I don’t know how many minds were changed that night; Beinart’s wasn’t, and neither was mine. But we did model for the hundreds of people who were there and the many more who watched the debate online that the Jewish community doesn’t have the luxury of refusing to speak to those who disagree with us. Instead, Peter and I did what the Jews have always done: We engaged the ideas, assumptions, and moral positions of the other, and in the spirit of the brave marketplace of ideas that Judaism has always been, tried to make our most compelling case.
Are there no limits to who’s in the Zionist tent? Of course there are. For me, the litmus tests are Israel’s Jewishness, democracy, and security. Anyone publicly committed to those three—even if I believe that their policy ideas are wrong-minded—is in the tent. There are many Israeli politicians whose ideas I believe are naïve or dangerous. But should I say that they’re not Zionists? That would absurd. For the same reason, Beinart is in my tent.
Speaking with people who agree with me is no challenge. Engaging with those whose views seem to me dangerous is infinitely harder, but far more important. That sort of conversation is perhaps the most critical lesson that we inherit from centuries of Talmudic Judaism. The Talmud is essentially a 20-volume argument, in which even positions that “lost” the battle and were not codified into law are subjected to reverential examination. When Hillel and Shammai debate, Jewish law, or halakhah, almost always follows Hillel. But we still study Shammai with reverence. Even those views not codified, we believe, have insights to share and moral positions worth considering.
The American Jewish community is the most secure diaspora community the Jews have ever known. Economically, socially, politically, culturally—we have made it, and what we say and model is watched by countless others. Yet New York Times readers this week can only conclude that in the midst of that security and comfort, we’ve utterly abandoned the intellectual curiosity that has long been Judaism’s hallmark.
Are we not ashamed to have created a community so shrill that any semblance of that Talmudic curiosity has been banished? Has the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?
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