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Limiting Debate On Israel Will Only Hurt Us
Mon, 02/03/2014 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish
Sid Schwarz
Sid Schwarz

The current controversy brewing in the Hillel universe is only the latest example of a Jewish community polarized over how we can or can’t talk about Israel. The guidelines, developed by national Hillel in 2010, were designed to provide a basis upon which a local Hillel could prevent overtly anti-Israel groups from speaking under the Hillel banner.

Of course it is not surprising that Jewish college students rebel at the attempt to limit who can be invited to speak about Israel. However well intentioned the policy might have been, it runs counter to the ethos of free inquiry that is the essence of university culture. Not only will Hillel not succeed in stemming the growth of a movement afoot for campuses to declare themselves “Open Hillels” in defiance of the Hillel speech guidelines on Israel, but the net result of the controversy will be that thousands of students will be convinced that the Jewish community has a “party line” on Israel that cannot be crossed. There is no surer recipe to drive Next Gen Jews away from identification with the Jewish community.

Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that is restricted to the college campus. The controversy at Hillel is simply a symptom of a Jewish community that has allowed a McCarthy-like atmosphere to overtake our communal life under the banner of defending the state of Israel. The examples are legion of thoughtful, committed Jews and lovers of Israel who have been declared treif because they spoke, wrote or acted in ways that challenged policies of the state of Israel. Richard Goldstone, an internationally renowned South African Jewish jurist, got the treatment for the UN report he authored on the Israeli incursion into Gaza, in which he said that both Hamas and the state of Israel may have been guilty of war crimes. Peter Beinart, who asked hard questions in his book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” has been disinvited from some Jewish communal forums due to pressure from influential and wealthy Jewish donors. Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street experienced a full-on communal assault on their legitimacy, even though their position on a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict is endorsed by a large majority of American Jews.

In Washington, D.C., a group of communal activists formed a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) that has exerted enormous pressure on the Jewish Federation to cut funding to the DCJCC because its Theatre J has sponsored plays that ask uncomfortable questions about the state of Israel. The effort is similar to actions taken in New York and San Francisco to shut down Jewish Film Festivals because some of the films are critical of Israel. In a display of Jewish communal courage all too rare these days, the executive director and president of the Washington Jewish Federation issued public letters declaring that the community would not cave to the pressure exerted by COPMA, even though that action will likely cost the federation tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.

In a survey of over 500 American rabbis conducted by the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in October, over a third indicated that they were fearful of expressing their real views about Israel in public. While the majority of those rabbis indicated that they feared consequences for expressing views more dovish than the mainstream, a significant number of rabbis engaged in self-censorship because their views were more hawkish than the mainstream.

Just as a healthy democracy relies on a free press to insure rigorous pursuit of truth, so too a healthy faith community needs spiritual leaders who can speak the truth as they see it. The principle is called “freedom of the pulpit.” It is sad to observe the extent to which this principle has been so seriously compromised.

The irony, of course, is that debate about Israel policy is far more open and robust in Israel than it is in North America. Evidence the film “The Gatekeepers,” in which former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet speak in great detail about how Israel’s political leadership bears a lot of responsibility for the failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Or for that matter Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land,” which validates the claims of Palestinians that in the creation of the Jewish state, tens of thousands of Arabs were forcibly displaced and their property confiscated. The implications of Shavit’s book have far more serious implications for the state of Israel than anything Peter Beinart has ever written.

Of course, that is the hallmark of a democracy. That is why, despite its faults and shortcomings, there is so much reason to celebrate the miracle of Israel and what it represents in the history of the Jewish people.

I wish I could be equally proud of the American Jewish community. We have become a community that is scared of the truth, and we have allowed intimidation and censorship to take the place of civility and respect for divergent views. We have no chance at success with outreach to Next Gen Jews if we tolerate an atmosphere that is antithetical to the very values that Jews hold dear.

One of the hallmarks of the American principle of free speech is insuring the right of citizens to speak their minds even if the views expressed are repugnant. Now is the time for Jewish leaders of courage to take a similar, principled stand.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at CLAL. He is the author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and serves as the director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a fellowship on Judaism and human rights with hubs in New York, London and Jerusalem for Next Gen Jews.

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I look forward to the day when the Students for Justice in Palestine will invite overtly Zionist speakers to their programs, so they can hear a Zionist perspective. Even more to the point, I look forward to the proponents of an "Open Hillel" to call on the SJP for a policy of openness. After all, fair is fair. Censorship is wrong. Right? Of course, right!

Wrong. Nobody is being censored. Nobody is being stifled. Nobody is interfering with the freedom of speech of students. Students may say whatever they want and debate whomever they want. That was never a question. This is a matter of branding and use of Hillel resources.You would not ask the Catholic Newman Society to sponsor of pro-choice speaker, would you? Do the College Republicans have a right to use the photocopy machine of the College Democrats? What they Muslim students Association have a speaker advocating Islamophobia? To the campus radicals invite speakers from the John Birch Society? Why is this even as issue? Would you think it appropriate for Hillel to invited a White Supremacist? No? Why not? Because you find those views revolting? So, am I to assume a speaker in support of BDS is, therefore, somehow acceptable as part of reasonable discourse within the Jewish community?

May I offer an alternative and refreshing conversation about Israel to this debate - my book, ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter, National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Modern Jewish Thought and Experience. I open Jewish sources to engage Israel ethically, intellectually, and emotionally. Here is a review:

Before condemning the behavior of those in the Jewish community who do not share your tendentious political viewpoint, you should, at the very least, get your facts straight. COPMA does not object to Theater's J production of "the Admission" because Moti Lerner's play "...ask[s] uncomfortable questions about the state of Israel." What COPMA decries is the play's promulgation of a canard concerning the behavior of the IDF during the 1948 War of Independence. The play turns on the consequences of a massacre of Arab civilians by Israel forces in the town of Tantura; if such a masscre had occured that would be acceptable, but, it didn't. In fact, it is well documented that the massacre never took place. The allegation, brought by a graduate student in his Master's thesis, was challenged in the Israeli courts years ago and determined to be a fabrication. Critically, the grad student confessed to his fabrication, yet Lerner still found the disproven false charge a legitimate basis for advancing his prejudicial political agenda. Yes, COPMA objected as would any decent person, Jew or Gentile. What we don't need at this difficult time for Israel, is a Jewish organization spreading false and defammatory stories about its behavior.

I completely disagree. When Jews critisize Israel, it gives non-Jews permission to do so. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say it.

Beautifully said Rabbi! The only point to regret is that your message needs saying. Censorship is always self-defeating. Refusing to hear the message of the other is an invitation to rupture and in some circumstances, violence.
Irwin Wall