American Jewish Community's Fear Pushes It Away From Honest Debate

So-called 'war' against Israel existence by BDS makes Jewish leaders crawl into ideological bunkers, while what is really needed is public discussion of Israel's character.


I’m troubled and distracted today. I’m preparing for my upcoming debate at the University of Ottawa with Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, on whether Israel can be considered both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Yet against this background I’m concerned about what’s been going on in my community in the lead-up to this event, a dynamic that tells us much about the tone and tenor of discourse around Israel.

When one of the other outlets I write for refused a piece on the debate because the group organizing it — Independent Jewish Voices — has been deemed taboo by the organizing arm of the Jewish community, and when my synagogue refused to allow a poster to be included on its billboard of events around town, I realized that something is awry. In some ways, the mainstream Jewish community operates on a different planet than do the many Jewish friends and colleagues I have who are both deeply connected to Israel and interested in debating and parsing these issues, whether online, offline, in person or in writing. And I am left to try to interpret this interplanetary system — one where fear and misplaced analogies define one orbit, and an honest desire to ask philosophical, intellectual and moral questions defines the other.

First, on fear. Since what Michael Oren recently called the third “phase” of the “war” against Israel launched by its enemies, namely to “to isolate, delegitimize and sanction Israel into extinction,” any public discussion of questions such as whether Israel has a “right” to exist in its particular ethno-political form, whether Israel’s Jewishness bumps up against its democratic character (whether through perceived theocratic tendencies or through perceived ethnic superiority policies), whether the decades-long occupation undermines Israeli democracy, are considered deeply threatening to many mainstream Jewish institutions and their adherents.

As public opinion shifts away from Israel — so much so that even this year’s Superbowl advertising was dragged into the Israel/Palestine morass — I understand that those who love and care about Israel, and who may feel an ongoing nagging sense of being unsafe, as Jews, wherever they are on earth, would find this scary. I also know, however, that silencing dialogue, discussion, conversation, and tough questions is a dangerous path to tread for the health of any society and any community within it.

But maybe it’s more than just general fear motivating this tendency to control the terms of the debate. Maybe it’s actually misplaced analogies about the nature of these political questions. Here, I am reminded of two episodes: one, an anecdote from my grade school years; and another, an event in recent news.

One day in fifth grade, our social studies teacher, Mr. Cooper, appeared in class and declared that the earth was flat. In childlike defiance with great agitation, we insisted he was wrong. “Prove it,” he told us. The internet as we know it was still a distant dream, so every day we tried to marshal whatever logical arguments and meagre data we could find with our limited research skills. Like the “horse-mule” argument in Fiddler on the Roof, the debate went on, see-saw style for a few weeks, until Mr. Cooper revealed that it had all been a rhetorical ruse, a concocted exercise to force us to argue for what we knew was right.

Fast forward to 2014, when a school district assignment in California's San Bernardino County led to a national uproar after it was revealed that students were asked to argue whether or not the Holocaust happened. To aid them in their assignment, students were told that they’d be presented with “credible” sources from “both sides.” School district officials later apologized.

What I’m realizing from all of this, is that those in the mainstream Jewish community who find the whole idea of debating Israel’s Jewish and democratic character anathema, must be comparing it to the moral absurdity of asking students to write an essay on whether the Holocaust occurred. If this is the analogy they are working with — consciously or not — of course they would want to crawl into their ideological bunkers.

Mr. Cooper, for his part, knew his pedagogical device was provocative but ultimately fruitful. We were forced to argue for something so obvious that it hardly needed arguing. For ten-year-olds, this was clearly the novelty. Does it matter that scientists claim that the earth isn’t quite round, but is actually a “bumpy spheroid?” Not really. The point was there. As for Israel’s democracy, like any political designation where technical procedure needs to be seen in the context of norms, laws, attitudes and practices, the truth is often complicated. Nuance can be painful for communities feeling under siege. But it’s necessary medicine for their longevity.