Between the Jews of America and the Jews of Israel, there are invisible threads of connection. Sometimes the threads are about justice and joy, sometimes about fear and foreboding. Last week they were about rage and repression.
In Israel, an ultra-right-wing group called Im Tirtzu slandered the New Israel Fund, publishing a vicious cartoon of its president, Naomi Chazan, a former speaker of the Knesset, with a horn growing from her head. Echoes of Der Stuermer!
What was the charge? That NIF, a generation-old U.S. funding source, had supported independent-minded nongovernmental organizations in Israel that were critical of government policy. Some NGOs had urged an independent Israeli investigation of charges that some Israeli soldiers had committed war crimes during the Gaza war. (So had Dan Meridor, deputy prime minister, and other high officials.) But, said Im Tirtzu, this behavior by NGOs and the New Israel Fund was — notice the horn — diabolical.
Worse, right-wing elements of the official Israeli establishment in the press and the Knesset leaped to demand investigations of NIF. Worse still, the government started denying work permits to non-Israelis on the staffs of NGOs. There emerged a concerted effort to shatter the spine of Israeli civil society, though in all democratic societies such groups are the roots of freedom.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the pro-peace, pro-Israel organization J Street rented space from Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania to launch its grass-roots organizing campaign. A number of members of the board of Penn Hillel protested against Hillel’s allowing J Street to hold its meeting there.
This effort to silence J Street was sensibly and bravely resisted by Rabbi Jeremy Brochin, director of Penn Hillel. The result was that about 250 Philadelphians came to hear J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami call for the United States government to support a region-wide peace treaty bringing security and peace to Israel, a new Palestinian state, and all other Arab states.
Once upon a time, such a treaty would have been greeted with dances of victory and joy by the Zionist movement. But today, right-wingers in America, like their counterparts in Israel, are defining such a call as “anti-Israel.”
Indeed, they charged J Street with being “anti-Israel” because J Street criticized the Israeli government’s invasion of Gaza.
Hmm. Somewhere between 45 and 55 percent of the American people criticize or outright oppose the U.S. government’s continuing war in Afghanistan. All those people are “anti-American,” right? And since they are Americans, they must be “self-hating Americans”?
These attempts to smash open debate in Israel and in the American-Jewish community are attacks on those who uphold the sacred value of free and open expression.
But they are more than that. They are also attacks on the community as a whole. Open debate and discussion, people learning from new ideas, learning perhaps to agree, perhaps to disagree, and perhaps to come to new understandings: These are crucial to the community as a whole. A community is much more likely to make wise choices out of such discussions than if some of its voices are silenced.
Expanding circles of Jews and others throughout the world are voicing deep criticisms of Israeli government policy that insists on blockading Gaza and slicing up the West Bank and East Jerusalem so that no self-determining Palestinian state is possible. More and more people are seeing that this policy is a mirror image of the domineering fantasy held by some Palestinians that Israel must disappear.
The Israeli government and those in American-Jewish life who simply follow in its tracks could open a real and vital debate, inviting serious discussion and disagreement with their own behavior. Or they can respond to change by rigidifying and trying to silence criticism.
This becomes a vicious circle, ethically and practically. The more those in charge screen out different opinions and information, the less likely they are to understand the real world and be able to deal with it effectively.
That is the path of Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart so often that he became addicted to hard-heartedness and could not change even when his own advisers warned him he was on a trek to self-destruction. Unfortunately, as Exodus tells us, this path endangers not only Pharaoh’s own self but brings down plagues on everyone else as well.
So how should we react — those of us who believe that discussion is wise, diplomacy is sacred, and domination is self-destructive?
By standing together for open debate. By remembering that when we listen to each other, we all learn, that when we silence each other, we all become stupid.