When Do We Give Up the Right to a Personal Opinion?

By SherwinPomerantz

 In 1977 I was writing a weekly column for the now-defunct Chicago Jewish Post & Opinion.  It was a very personal assessment of the community at the time and, quite frankly, I loved doing it.  But that year I was elected Midwest Regional President of the United Synagogue of America, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations in the US and Canada and everything changed.

My mentor at the time, now deceased, Rabbi Samuel Schafler, sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that I could no longer speak as a private citizen.  As the elected head of a community body anything I would now say would reflect, for better or for worse, on the organization I represented.  Therefore, in his opinion, I had no choice but to stop writing the column, and I did so not only because of my respect for his opinion but because it was, indeed, the right thing to do.  I could no longer speak as a private citizen.

I was reminded of this last week when I saw the video clip and read the story about British MK George Galloway, who stormed out of an Oxford University debate on Israel when he found out that his counterpart was not just a British citizen of mosaic persuasion, but the son of Israelis living in England and, therefore, also a citizen of Israel.

What happened was that during Eylon Asian-Levy’s rebuttal to Galloway’s remarks, Asian-Levy used the term “we” when referring to Israel.  At that point Galloway interrupted and asked Asian-Levy whether he was also Israeli?  When he responded in the affirmative, Galloway and his wife immediately left the meeting saying:  “I refuse to debate with an Israeli, a supporter of the Apartheid state of Israel.  The reason is simple; No recognition, No normalization.  Just boycott, divestment and sanctions until the Apartheid state is defeated.”

And this from a member of the British parliament whose country’s official position is not only diplomatic recognition of Israel, but general support of its government and its right to be considered a member of the family of nations.  So then the question becomes, does an elected member of Parliament who has sworn allegiance to the country in whose legislature he serves, have the right to deny by his actions the stated policy of his government?  I think not.

But we have a similar situation in Israel.  MK Hanan Zoabi about whom I have written before was a demonstrator on the Mavi Marmara that sailed from Istanbul in May, 2010 to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, in direct opposition to the policies of the government to which she had sworn allegiance.  More recently, during the recent installation of our newly seated Knesset, she chose to leave the room when the national anthem was sung in a show of disrespect to the country to which she had just minutes before sworn allegiance.  (I would not have had a problem had she chosen not to sing it, but walking out is a different kettle of fish, as it were.)

Our former Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, committed the same error when he addressed the United Nations two years ago and expressed an opinion that was diametrically opposed to that of the government he served at the time.   Such conduct is simply not acceptable.

Elected members of the legislature who, as part of the process of their being seated, are required in every country to swear allegiance to the country they serve and its elected leadership.  At that point their right to the expression of personal opinion becomes somewhat curtailed just as they then become eligible for some perks that come with such high office.  But these go hand in hand and people cannot accept one and reject the other.  Accepting the mantle of leadership demands a certain commitment to keeping one’s personal opinions somewhat subdued within the limits of parliamentary obligation.

Most of these people need to learn what Albert Einstein taught us.  If A equals success, then the formula is A = X+Y+Z where X is work, Y is play and Z is keeping your mouth shut.  If more of our leaders understood that we would probably all be better off.