Memo to Jewish Haters of Liberals: The Middle Ages Are Over

The language of excommunication and apostasy has never been used lightly in Jewish history, and its implications can be dangerous.

Last week saw one of the more interesting recent developments in world Jewish affairs with the first annual convention of pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street. The founding of J Street reopens the debate about what it means to be pro-Israel. While the good intentions of AIPAC to protect Israel's interest have never been questioned, many of us think that its strategy of automatically backing every course of action of Israel's government has often been counter-productive.

Such debate is important and welcome, but it needs to be conducted in a civilized manner - and that, unfortunately, is not always the case, and the results can be horrendous. Now, fourteen years after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Yaakov Teitel - the alleged perpetrator of last year's attempt to kill Israel Prize Laureate Prof. Zeev Sternhell and of many other terrible acts of destruction - has been detained. Research shows that violence of this sort in all cultures is a function of a general atmosphere that legitimizes extreme hatred. These are times in which we all need to think carefully about the language we use, and make sure that we do not encourage political violence - even if unwillingly.

Isi Leibler wrote an article in The Jerusalem Post that used truly frightening language. Referring to Jews who criticize Israel, Leibler writes: "Such odious Jews can be traced back to apostates during the Middle Ages who fabricated blood libels and vile distortions of Jewish religious practice for Christian anti-Semites to incite hatred which culminated in massacres. It was in response to these renegades that the herem (excommunication) was introduced."

Leibler's approach is duplicitous. He uses one type of language when speaking to what he takes to be his constituency, but a few days ago denied in a piece in The Guardian that he ever called for the excommunication of J Street or of critics of Israel.

How should we relate to such a publication? One option would be to simply dismiss it as a fringe phenomenon. But I think this would be a grave mistake. The language of excommunication and apostasy has never been used lightly in Jewish history, and its implications can be dangerous. More importantly: Leibler is not some obscure crank from the extreme right, but a Jewish activist with a distinguished record who has held senior positions in the World Jewish Congress; and he does not write in some obscure blog, but in a reputable, mainstream Israeli newspaper.

Hence, I want to urge Mr. Leibler to restore sanity to the discussion about Israeli politics and renounce hate speech of all sorts. I want to call on him that we need to restore dialogue even between those groups that bitterly disagree with each other.

Leibler explicitly evokes the Middle Ages in advocating excommunication. Does he really want the current disputes about Israeli policy to be conducted in the language of the Middle Ages? Does he really think that excommunication is the way to deal with Jewish Liberals who believe that Israel is often making tragic mistakes? I want to remind him that the herem has not always been used to the greater glory of the Jewish people. The greatest work of Jewish philosophy, Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, was banned at certain times, and one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived, Baruch Spinoza, was excommunicated for apostasy by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

In calling for excommunication of those who disagree with him, Leibler seems to endow himself with papal infallibility in knowing what is good for Israel - but in Jewish tradition nobody can claim infallibility. I want to remind Mr. Leibler of the rules of plugta, of civilized argument and disagreement that have been held dear in Jewish tradition, and I will gladly meet with him and talk.

I want to make it clear: Leibler does not call for physical violence. Yet terms like "apostates" and "excommunication" are a clear way of delegitimizing the large proportion of the Jewish people, who disagree with him. He should not forget that there might always be somebody like Yaakov Teitel who takes him more seriously than I assume he wants to be taken. I hope that Mr. Leibler condemns such acts unequivocally as every civilized human being, Jewish or not, should.

A final consideration to stop hate speech: J Street's convention coincided with the commemoration of the 14th anniversary of the Hebrew date of Rabin's assassination, an event that still casts a huge shadow over all of Israeli politics. What we need to learn from Rabin's murder is that hate speech creates an atmosphere that legitimizes violence. Re-reading Ina Friedman and Michael Karpin's Murder in the Name of God is a chilling experience. It shows the buildup of an ever-growing hatred of Rabin and the peace process not only among the Israeli right, but in the American Jewish Right, that gradually led to the halakhic rulings that killing Rabin was justified. We should all be united in stopping any language that can raise the level of hatred between Jews to murderous levels.

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