It was reassuring to see the results of a recent survey in Israel stating that the majority of Israelis think it is very important to keep talking to Jews in the Diaspora (individuals and groups) who disagree with the official policy or actions of the Israeli Government. The respondents confirmed their belief in the concept of Jewish “nationhood” that includes, but is not exclusive to, those who live in the State of Israel and also reinforced their belief in the importance of dialogue with people who you disagree with.

Interestingly, the issue of dissent within the Jewish community and how it is addressed was a feature of the many presentations, including my own, made at Emanuel Synagogue’s ‘Festival of dangerous ideas’ on Leil Shavuot.

This may have been because recent events have shown that there are strong and influential groups within Jewish communities around the world that are far less liberal than the Israeli public and they continue to try and stifle or ban open discussion about issues that are important to Israel and Jews around the world.

A while ago American journalist Peter Beinart was lambasted for offering reasons why young American Jews were feeling alienated from Israel. More recently a concerted campaign was mounted to prevent the appointment of the incoming president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, because of his support for the New Israel Fund and J-Street. The recent visit by Professor Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund, to Australia was heavily criticised by some as “supporting the enemies of Israel”.

This form of McCarthyism, “the political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence” is vicious and insidious and must be combated by all who believe that the way to help a person – or a country – that you love is by constantly being honest and supportive, even when the honesty means expressing disagreement with aspects of their behaviour.

This honesty does not always endear us to more conservative elements but as progressive and open-minded members of the community I believe that it is our obligation and responsibility to combine our financial and moral support for Israel with earnest efforts to make her the home for all Jews as conceived by Theodore Herzl, described in the Declaration of Independence and desired by Jews around the world, including Israel.

As simple as it may sound I believe that we as a community we need to remind ourselves of the words of Voltaire that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. At the same time any person who wants to have their views heard with respect needs to be part of a civil community behaves with respect toward those with dissenting views.

Last week Alan Dershowitz, in response to being prevented from speaking in South Africa and banned from speaking in Norway because he is a supporter of Israel said “I am proud of standing up against Bishop Tutu’s singular bigotry against the Jewish State and the Jewish people. Yet I defend the right of Tutu and his sycophants to express their views. I would never try to censor them as they have tried to censor me and others. The difference is that I am not afraid of the truth, of debate or of the marketplace of ideas.”

Whether it relates to discussion about Israel or our own community we must be prepared to hear dissenting views and to discern between constructive and destructive criticism. We might even learn from it, as suggested by George Bernard Shaw “New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.”

 

Steve Denenberg

Executive Director
Union for Progressive Judaism

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