When did we all agree to substitute coercion for persuasion? What is happening to the increasingly lost art of firmly, passionately arguing our positions – to say with respect and conviction to another person, “This is why you are wrong”?
The most recent – and in many respects, most surprising – offenders in this elision were the members of a group of Zionist professors, educators, and journalists who issued a statement calling for “sanctions” against four Israeli political figures (Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Ze’ev Hever, and Moshe Feiglin), protesting their actions to “entrench” the occupation and what this group perceives as an explicit flouting of international law. Evidently frustrated with Israel’s rightward drift and with their own inability to achieve measurable change from far away against these trends, rhetoric gave way to a kind of retribution.
I understand and relate to the impulses that led to this action. I too am frustrated – as an American Jew, as someone with deep ties to friends, colleagues and institutions in Israel, and as a Jew who believes that the State of Israel is an essential and inextricable feature of Jewish identity – to see that there is seemingly little I can do from far away to work in fighting trends such as the deepening social inequalities brought about by years of security fears, terror, and occupation.
The actual constructive choices at my disposal, such as moving to Israel to vote, giving on a small-scale to NGO’s working on progressive issues, and teaching as part of my work about inspired engagement with Israel, are fundamentally limited. And combined with a prevailing anxiety in the Jewish communal establishment about the limits of legitimate American Jewish “interference” with Israeli policies, this frustration feels more like impotence. I see in this august roster of scholars, wise teachers, and colleagues a network of longtime Zionists who I admire for their legacy of support for Israel, and I respect their belief in their own courage and capacity to effect change.
And yet, I believe these actions and this decision to try to punish rather than persuade signal a deep failure of imagination, and negate the very values these scholars have worked hard to uphold. Michael Walzer, one of the signatories and a longtime colleague at the Shalom Hartman Institute, has written about the fundamentally intertwined nature of pluralism and democracy as characteristics of “the American Idea.” In his argument against fundamentalism, Walzer suggests that in a thriving democracy, policy emerges from “freewheeling debate” and open debate on ideas. Implicit in Walzer’s argument is the corollary as it comes to the outcomes of such debates: namely, that losing an argument is still an act of participating in a democracy. Civil society loses its moorings when dissenting voices – after they have been given a legitimate airing – insist on destabilizing the society because of their failure to win the day.
In this regard, there is something deeply unfair about the insistence of these scholars that the rules of the debate no longer apply now that their own positions are losing. Honestly, I too feel some sense of deep foreboding about the rise of ultra-nationalism in Israel as an authentic, even if dangerous, response to the intractable conflict. But to turn in this moment to these tools of coercion is not only to quit the game, it is to question the very rules of the contest. It might signal the last gasp by loyal adherents to Zionism who feel that absent this kind of desperate effort, they may no longer feel at home in this story. But their exit will have more ramifications for them than the faraway society that they hope to transform.
Saddest of all is that this effort toward changing the outcomes by sanctioning the actors echoes of the efforts in Jewish institutional life that these scholars detest, which close down the discourse on Israel through the setting up of “red lines” and boundaries of who can speak, and where, and about what. Both of these responses entail a resistance to difference of opinion by avoiding it, either slamming a door in its face or seeking to undermine those who hold contrary opinions. Israel’s democracy is far more robust these days than that of the American Jewish community when it comes to talking about Israel’s realities; there is great irony in the higher levels of anxiety about Israel’s domestic challenges and the narrower parameters of loyalty to Israel from 7,000 miles away than within its borders. Here, too, the response to fear of alternative political realities cannot and should not be repressing the ability of people to speak their viewpoints. It is in the harrowing insistence of moral rectitude that right and left are beginning to converge.
Even in this moment of adversity, when it seems the trends are against the liberal agenda, it must be possible to adduce a quality argument without silencing or sanctioning the more powerful opposition. No one likes being “wrong”; it is uncomfortable and demoralizing to be on the losing side of the communal consensus or the will of the electorate. But just as losing a debate is not the same as being silenced, there is no excuse for the silencing or sanctioning efforts as shortcuts to the debate itself. Right and left are conspiring with sanctions and red lines to undermine the legitimacy of serious debate in the Jewish community; it is time for the rational and reasonable to take it back.