The self-destructiveness of shutting down debate

Rob Eshman, editor in chief of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, writes in Shutting Jewish Mouths that the American Jewish Committee report sends the message that “there’s only one way to show you care for the Jewish state — our way.”

Twenty years ago at a park in Beverly Hills, actor Richard Dreyfuss, feminist Betty Friedan and Yael Dayan, the daughter of the late Israeli leader Moshe Dayan, stood before a crowd of some 300 people and called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

Many in the crowd booed and hissed the speakers. Eventually they shouted Dreyfuss down. He had to be escorted offstage, past Jews who spat at him and called him names.

I know, because, as the local head of Americans for Peace Now back then, I organized the rally. I helped form a human ring around Dreyfuss as he raced for the safety of his car.

And I was there when a screaming protestor broke through our linked arms, called Dreyfuss a traitor, then said, “Hey, Richard, you think I could get your autograph?”

To follow the controversy over members of the Jewish mainstream accusing Jewish liberals of fomenting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred by criticizing the Jewish state is to relive that afternoon in Roxbury Park, and all its attendant stupidity.

Back then, at the height of the first intifada, the Jewish establishment charged that Jews who spoke out publicly against the “Iron Fist” policies of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were aiding the enemies of Israel. If Friedan or any other Jew wasn’t going to serve in the Israeli army, the argument went, they had no right to criticize Israel. At a time when American support for Israel was crucial, for Jews to break ranks from the party line could only give Israel’s foes in Congress fuel for dissent.

But those Jews would not be silent. Their ranks grew. Eventually their far-left ideas — for a two-state solution and negotiations with the Palestinians — became Israeli government policy; Rabin was shot dead at a rally in Tel Aviv, organized by Peace Now.

The moral of the story: Today’s dissenters might just be on to something.

I have no idea whether the vision of today’s leftist outliers like Tony Judt and Tony Kushner will become tomorrow’s reality. I’m not going to defend them, because those men, criticized harshly in a report by Alvin H. Rosenfeld funded by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), are more than capable of defending their own views.

But I will defend the importance of Jewish self-criticism.

To read Jewish history is to see that crucial dynamic at work: From the biblical prophets down through modern times, we are a people who have canonized those who scold and chastise the established order, who envision a different world. Some of the sharpest criticism leveled by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was at Jews who were too comfortable in a Europe he sensed would one day turn on them. Some of the most virulent criticism he received was from Jews who believed a Jewish state would endanger the security of Diaspora Jews.

The tradition of sharp criticism turned on one’s own people still lives — in Hebrew. The Israeli press has always been far more contentious toward Israel than American Jewry. Nothing Judt or Kushner has proposed hasn’t already been written in Israel.

Similarly, the two-state solution and dealing with Yasser Arafat was old news in Israel by the time the American Jewish left picked up the cause. The party-line-discipline organizations like the AJCommittee often seek to enforce delays but don’t derail good ideas.

The rule that American Jews don’t have the right to speak out since they don’t live in Israel and won’t suffer the consequences of their ideas has visceral appeal but has proved, thankfully, unenforceable.

The American Jewish establishment’s ideal Israel-Diaspora relationship — we give our money, you give your sons — has always co-existed with strong expressions of dissent. Just as the left protested for an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many on the American Jewish right publicly spoke out against then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (an idea the Israeli and American Jewish left had argued for years earlier).

What’s more, the basic premise is just wrong. Speaking at a meeting on terrorism in Los Angeles last November, former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter noted than Iran’s two attacks on Jewish civilian targets in Argentina in the early 1990s followed Israel’s targeted assassinations on leaders of the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah movement: 114 people were killed in those attacks, mostly Jews.

Jews in the Diaspora don’t bear the brunt of living in Israel, but they may still pay a price for decisions made in Jerusalem.

By squashing left-wing criticism, the mainstream makes the world safe for opinions far to the right. Has the AJCommittee taken a stand against Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli minister who has called for the forced expulsion of Israeli Arabs from their towns? No, it has not; though one could argue Lieberman’s opinions endanger a democratic Jewish state at least as much as Kushner’s.

But from where I sit, the most insidious effect of the AJCommittee is the message it sends to the majority of Jews, and non-Jews, who support Israel but don’t always agree with its policies. That message is: there’s only one way to show you care for the Jewish state — our way.

Given that choice, the silent majority of Jews drift away, and the mainstream organizations then bemoan the fact that most Jews, especially Jewish youth, aren’t involved on behalf of Israel.

It’s very hard to sell smart people on the idea that the best way to support the strongest democracy in the Middle East is to shut up.

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