The closing of the Jewish mind

The closing of the Jewish mind

The New York Times Magazine recently interviewed a long-time Israeli politician who was bluntly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The politician suggested that Netanyahu appeared too eager to attack Iran and suggested that Israel isn’t doing enough to convince the United States — or the Israeli public — that it is interested in peace.

He blamed the settlement movement and its supporters in Netanyahu’s governing coalition for refusing to consider compromises. And he went on to refute a number of positions taken as gospel among many of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States: He endorsed President Obama’s efforts to make peace with the Muslim world. He described Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as “an excellent partner.” He warned that without bold diplomacy on Israel’s part, “the Palestinians will go back to terror.” While many pro-Israel groups reject the “linkage” argument — put forth at various times by Obama, David Petraeus, and the Iraq Study Group — he embraced it. “If the Palestinian problem were to be solved,” he said, “the Islamist extremists would be robbed of their pretext for their actions against us.”

Finally, he seemed to take a page from left-wing Zionists in the United States, who say that right-wing policies are alienating many American Jews.

“The world’s Jews want an Israel they can be proud of and not an Israel that has no borders and that is considered an occupying state,” said the politician.

I had two thoughts after reading the interview. First, Shimon Peres is not going gently into that good night. Second, if anyone else but Peres were to say the things he was saying, they’d have a hard time getting an invitation from a synagogue or Jewish group.

That’s not to say that the president of Israel can’t be wrong. Despite a long list of accomplishments he was happy to provide to his interviewer — establishing Israel’s nuclear program, overseeing the Entebbe operation, and setting up its aerospace industry — Peres has long been dismissed as a dreamer by his critics on the Right. My point is not that Peres is speaking truth to power, but that he is offering an alternative to the often unquestioning support for Israeli policies assumed in large, public, Jewish settings.

In those settings, Israel advocacy has usually come to mean advocacy for the positions of the sitting government. Those who disagree — in this historical moment, that means those on the Left — find themselves outside the conversation.

Certain groups — J Street comes to mind — and individuals — with Peter Beinart leading the list — sound pretty much like Peres, but to many Jewish leaders are pariahs. Campus Jewish coalitions have been pressured to reject J Street chapters. An Atlanta JCC rescinded its invitation to Beinart after members — what percentage, the JCC wouldn’t say — found his views on Israel a “powder keg.” Such ostracism works the other way, too: Rabbi Daniel Gordis, the right-leaning American-Israeli author, said major sponsors of an event at which he was supposed to appear pulled their support because he had signed a letter they disagreed with.

I’ve seen flyers for programs that promise a range of voices on Israel, when in truth the range is from Center to Right. You’d be hard pressed at these events to find someone beside an audience member voicing opinions like those of Peres.

Even when institutions host a true range of opinions, they do so gingerly, marketing the events as “difficult conversations” or the like. In 2011 Temple Emanu-El in Westfield held separate talks by leaders of AIPAC and J Street and called the series “Varied Voices.” They were tremendously informative and even brave events, but it’s a little sad that a grand Jewish tradition — arguing with one another — has to come with a warning label. Organizations — often with reason — worry about presenting views that someone, especially a key supporter, is bound to disagree with, as if the only reason we gather as Jews is to agree with one another.

Certain institutions are often, for structural reasons, the last places to go for wide-open discussion, since they depend on financial support from people who don’t hesitate to use their clout to quash opposing viewpoints.

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself as a leader or member of a Jewish organization. Do you value a wider conversation? How often do you hear articulate presentations from someone you disagree with? Has your shul or organization hosted a speaker who offers a contrary opinion? If you are reluctant to host or listen to genuine dialogue, why?

I know the usual objections to hosting critics of current Israeli policies: We should offer a unified front, we shouldn’t give “ammunition” to Israel’s enemies, etc. But telling people they don’t belong further shrinks an already shrinking people. As Gordis asked the organization that lost a key sponsor, “Doesn’t the fact that we disagree make it all the more critical that we talk to each other?” In suppressing the kinds of arguments heard in Israel itself — and expressed by no less a figure than the country’s president — we are diminishing our ability to engage with Israel, and with our fellow Jews.

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