Last week, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman spoke at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and spent 75 minutes with the Jewish Light’s editorial group. During that wide-ranging discussion, he lamented the loss of civility and respectful discourse in our Internet-savvy, 24/7 news culture.
Interestingly, at virtually the same time Foxman was speaking here, Glenn Beck was lambasting billionaire investor George Soros for helping Nazis ship Jews to death camps during the Holocaust when Soros was a 13 year old. Beck’s overreaching statements were so blatant that not only did Foxman condemn them, but so did Jonathan Tobin in the conservative publication “Commentary,” no friend of Soros’ current politics. Beck then stuck his foot further in it, accusing Foxman of labeling Beck as anti-Semitic, when Foxman did no such thing. For a good analysis of this episode, see JTA Editor Ami Eden’s nicely written Nov. 15 commentary at www.blogs.jta.org.
The desire to see intellectual honesty and subtlety has played large in Foxman’s life as of late. He was accused of opposing the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, when in fact he asked for sensitivity for victims and clearly acknowledged the right to construct. He now freely admits that the bare Internet distribution of ADL’s press release on the matter allowed others to commandeer and manipulate his intent and message.
So it’s no surprise that Foxman has been thinking about the nuances of communication, and he penned an excellent article on the Jerusalem Post website (Nov. 14, www.jpost.com) this week about the appropriate role of Diaspora Jews in addressing issues of Israeli peace and security.
Foxman’s premise is that we in the Diaspora should adhere to what was the traditional view, namely to support the Israeli government’s position on these issues, as it may be from time to time. He indicates there are two powerful arguments for doing so: First, those of us who haven’t walked in Israelis’ shoes should not deign to tell them how to lead their lives. Second, in the case of America in particular, a fragmented Jewish community advocating a variety of different messages and positions dilutes the influence we have on our own government in supporting Israel.
Foxman’s points are well taken, as there are most definitely costs associated with divisiveness. But this conclusion doesn’t end the requisite analysis.
For one thing, no one (including Foxman) is suggesting that any formal or forceful damper be put on public dialogue. The freedom of all to offer their opinions and perspectives is an integral part of life both here and in Israel. Someone on the Right who believes the Left is contributing to a diminished solidarity in Israel by criticizing the government’s support of settlement activity is not obligated to suffer in silence. Similarly, one on the Left who is troubled by discrimination of Arabs or by the blockade to Gaza needn’t remain quiet to be a supporter of Israel. It is patently unrealistic to expect that people would (or should) not offer what they believe are the necessary messages that will protect Israel and lead to peace.
For another, are there no limits to what the Israeli government can do while still expecting our acquiescent support? We think not – if there is illegal action in implementing matters of peace and security, are we required to stand by and salute? We are reasonably sure that we are not obliged to remain mute in the face of coverups or questionable behavior. And how far down the slippery slope from illegal to perceived unethical or immoral acts must government conduct go before it’s shielded from critical commentary? Therein lies the proverbial view of the beholder.
These questions about the limits of public discourse on Israel have no ready or easy answers, of course. But what we can take away from Foxman most assuredly is that the level of discourse must improve for us to have any hope of cultivating lasting support for Israel across the spectrum.
What does this mean in practice? Among other things, it means:
• We must not label someone as anti-Israel because their views on how to best effect peace and security are different than ours.
• We must not label someone as anti-Israel because of their political party affiliation.
• We must not label someone as anti-Israel simply to build support for our own viewpoint.
• We must not label someone as anti-Israel because of our own fierce passion for the Jewish State.
There are plenty of opinions to go around, and we’d be the first to admit that the prevalence of views makes the dialogue messy at best. In this, Foxman is absolutely right. But the likelihood that those with adamant opinions are likely to voluntarily suppress their thoughts is practically nil. That’s why we advocate for civility, respect and most importantly, not presuming ill intent of those with whom we disagree. To do so only flames the fire that Foxman correctly suggests we must do our best to extinguish.