Donniel Hartman
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Boycotting the boycotters?

Free speech makes Israel strong and curtailing it would be a mistake

Does an organization have a right to tax-exempt status from the country it advocates boycotting? This is the question facing Israel’s Knesset, which is being asked to pass government-sponsored legislation taxing foreign donations to any organization which calls on others to boycott or sanction either Israel or Israeli institutions. A parallel challenge faces many Jewish organizations in North America with regard to whether to allow within their institutions a platform for individuals and organizations which do the same or for one-statists who do not support the right of Israel to be an independent Jewish state..

As is so often the case, complex issues give birth to immediate, opposing knee-jerk responses, which instead of furthering discussion and understanding actually close it down. Each side portrays the matter as a pivotal value issue which is self-evident despite the fact that the debate proves that it is anything but.

On the one side stand the advocates who conflate free speech with tax-exempt status and/or the right to speak from any platform. Free speech must be given precisely to those who aggravate us the most, they say, and it is only a society and community which fosters unlimited dissent that will be able to contain its diversity and give birth to the ever-new thinking necessary for its growth.

Those arguments fail to convince the proponents of such limits, for they too see themselves as advocates of free speech. For them, the issue is not freedom of speech but whether a society or an organization has to support – as distinct from allowing – speech which actively calls for its harm. It is not dissenting opinions that they seek to curtail, but the support of those dissenting opinions when they advocate for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) or the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.

Conversely, the supporters of such legislation and those calling for the boycotting of the boycotters, defend their positions with the value of self-defense. A country and a people’s first responsibility is to enable and support its own existence. Looking after one’s own self-interest is neither immoral nor amoral but a foundational moral responsibility. Love your neighbor as yourself. What is hateful unto you do not do unto others. Love of self and the protection of one’s own needs and interests have moral priority. As Chief Justice Aharon Barak famously argued, a citizen’s inalienable rights exist only within the context of a society and cannot be defended when the exercise of those rights threatens the very society within which they are born.

This argument too falls on deaf ears, for the advocates of the unencumbered speech view such speech as essential to Israel and the Jewish people’s survival and well-being. They too support the moral obligation of self-preservation. But unlike Chief Justice Barak’s argument, which permits the torture of terrorists in the case of a “ticking bomb,” BDS speech, not to speak of the one-statists, they argue, poses no such immediate and severe a danger. Israel is strong, and the goal of the one-statists and some within the BDS community is not to destroy Israel but to redefine it or create the economic and political pressure necessary to help steer it back to its proper course and true self.

The debate is thus set up as between free speech and security, between allowing for dissent and the undermining of our people’s right to exist. It is a debate which has nowhere to go, for ostensibly both sides can share the same values, and instead of debating their application they portray the other as disloyal to a self-evident value, which the other side does not feel they are even debating. In Hebrew we call this, du siach shel chirshim, a dialogue of the hearing-impaired. We are having ever-increasing types of such dialogue, and more than any legislation or policy under debate, this poses a real threat to Israeli and Jewish collective life. Leaving aside the boundaries and limits of the right to dissent, and to voice one’s dissent, a community that has lost the art of how to dissent, how to disagree and to talk with each other, is a community under severe distress.

BDS is repulsive to me and alien to my Jewish consciousness. My love and loyalty to my people and my country obligate me to fight my country wherever I believe it to be flawed. I fight it, however, through speech and advocacy, and at the ballot box. The coercive and punitive dimensions of BDS I find both arrogant and inappropriate to a debate amongst brothers and sisters. The right of Israel to be a Jewish state is also self-evident to me, and I am always amazed at the duplicity of the one-statists for whom the only nation-state which is morally flawed and illegitimate is the Jewish state. I see nothing inherently wrong or morally flawed when a country, while allowing such positions to be advocated, does not feel that it needs to privilege them. Nor do I feel that Jewish institutions which are inherently pluralistic sin to their mission when they want to set boundaries to that pluralism, when the debate about Israel’s future moves to whether it should have a future.

That said, I believe that boycotting the boycotters or one-staters, whether in Israel or particularly on college campuses, is a serious strategic error. Starting with Israel, while the Middle East remains an extremely dangerous place, and our survival never ensured, we are nevertheless a powerful country. Power is not merely a gift which enables one to withstand the attacks of outsiders, it is a gift which enables one to take chances for the sake of one’s values and ideas. Powerlessness is a reality and at times a crutch which both inhibits and allows one to lower one’s expectations from oneself, hiding behind the proverbial, “in the future we will be able to….”

Israel’s success has enabled us to touch this future and obligates us to spend its dividends. The unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, coupled with the sense of insulating power, has not served Israel’s democratic values well. The reality of occupation and the ability of Israel’s military to sustain it at an acceptable cost to Israelis, coupled with the Israeli perception that the Palestinians and their leadership have yet to make the strategic decision toward peace and coexistence, has begun to callous many Israelis’ democratic sensibilities. Whether it leads to a de facto devaluing of peace, to calls for the annexing of Judea and Samaria despite demographic consequences, to the perpetuating of inequalities toward Israeli Arabs, the fact is that Israel’s future is far more secure than its democracy.

It is time for us to give priority not merely to the defense of our borders and our economy but to our values as a Jewish-democratic state. Our challenge now is less with the limits of free speech than with those who want to limit it. While every society allows for emergency measures which can suspend for a time democratic principles and rights, right now we need emergency measures which will suspend legitimate legislation for the sake of ensuring our democratic principles and rights.

In North America, Jewish institutions face a different struggle. It is perfectly legitimate for institutions with a particular ideology to foster that ideology and not offer a platform to those positions in which it sees no value, not to speak of harm. That said, it is important to recognize that those institutions which are attempting to reach the more marginally or non-affiliated face today a particular and daunting challenge. This challenge is neither to “protect” our impressionable youth from harmful ideas, nor to equip them with the tools to defend Israel. Those who believe so are on a boat that left the port over a decade ago. The front line is whether our youth will care at all, be it about Israel or Judaism. When we attempt to generate criteria for loyalty or litmus tests for Israel supporters, we cause the unaffiliated or not strongly affiliated to question the grounds for their loyalty. When we silence certain voices within our institutions, they question the very value of these institutions.

We live in an open marketplace of ideas, and uninhibited access to these ideas. The fantasy of limiting debate and conversation is precisely that, a fantasy and an ineffective and short-sighted policy. In a world where individuals choose their identities and affiliations, when Judaism and Israel project fear and weakness, we become unattractive. When that fear inspires an image of closed-mindedness, we become repellent. Israel will find a place on the radar screen of our next generation when it is a place which can be debated and engaged with without restriction. The case for Israel can be made without projecting that it needs the protection of censorship. Good fences make good neighbors. Good fences and boundaries are necessary to protect an identity. When that identity is as yet unformed, boundaries of conversation will keep more people out than keep them from leaving.

We have worked hard as a people, whether in Israel or in North America, to achieve the success and prosperity that we have attained. It behooves us to move beyond preserving our past successes and instead to use them as a catalyst to move further. To reinforce where necessary values that are being weakened and to reach out to those that we are in danger of losing. While we need not be so open-minded as to allow for our dissolution, we also need to recognize that we are not so weak that we cannot take chances for our ideals. We have reached the moment that our security need not force us to tolerate mediocrity but rather is a force that enables us to be confident and reach higher.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.