One of the strengths of the American Jewish community is our diversity of views on many issues. One finds a wide range of perspectives among our people on basic matters. As just a few examples, how we pray, how we observe, how we vote and often how we support Israel.
Within that context there are significant differences of opinion in Israel and the broader diaspora as to the best way to implement the Zionist dream, to interpret the nation’s Declaration of Independence and its focus on a Jewish and democratic state, and how best to protect Israel’s security in the face of many threats.
Anyone who suggests that only they have the answers to all these challenges is simply wrong and misses the complexity of the challenges Israel faces. In other words, assuming that the basic values of the state are respected, there is plenty of room for disagreements on these topics.
Where we shouldn’t go is in the way people express their disagreement. Famously, the Talmud, in looking back at the causes of the fall of the Second Temple, focused on sinat chinam, the hatred of one individual in the community against another. Personal invective and character assassination were seen by the rabbis as the worst crime causing the worst tragedy, the destruction of the holiest Jewish site.
All this comes to mind recently when several articles appeared attacking an individual whose name has been floated as a candidate to serve as the next ambassador of the United States to Israel.
The individual is Susie Gelman, the recent chair of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and a member of a family with a long history of support for the Jewish state. (Full disclosure: Susie is a donor to ADL.)
Founded by former Israeli generals, IPF is an organization focused on supporting and advocating for advancing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organization has an indisputably Zionist perspective. Its analysis typically offers sharp insights and smart takes. One can agree or disagree with IPF’s positions and there certainly is nothing inherently problematic if one might oppose Gelman’s appointment when someone substantiates that concern based on the specifics of her work at IPF.
But in this case, fact-based critiques quickly were left behind in favor of outright character assassination. It is ugly to behold. And it speaks to a wider problem in our community.
One article ludicrously suggested that appointing Gelman would indicate “that we have an American enemy sitting in our capital.” Another preposterously claimed that Gelman, as US ambassador, would use the position to wage diplomatic war on the Jewish state. Even describing these screeds as “articles” is a charitable act.
Vilifying a lifelong Zionist like Gelman, a woman who has invested so much of her adult life into supporting the Jewish state, is repellant. People can have different views on diplomatic appointments — including reports about Gelman — but such opinions should be expressed respectfully. Even if one may disagree with her political approach, slandering her as an “anti-Israel leftist” is appalling and nasty. Unfortunately, it reflects the extreme politics that seem to be poisoning the Jewish community as well as our broader society.
But make no mistake: When Jews fight with other Jews, it’s the antisemites who win.
To be clear, no one is trying to stifle legitimate differences of political and ideological perspectives. It must be done, however, with civility and respect. All of us should have the maturity to recognize the good things that others have done, even by those people with whom you have deeply held differences. And we can make our case with an acknowledgment that how we speak to each other is as important as what we believe in.
The lesson that the Talmud imparted about the conduct of the generation that experienced the destruction of the Temple and the exile from the Holy Land, is one that we in our generation would be wise to heed.
In Israel and beyond, the Jewish people face real, exigent threats; tilting at imaginary windmills is a distraction that we can’t afford. Moreover, in an era of social media and intense political polarization, the potential for sinat chinam to injure our community is real. Let us all step back and focus instead on addressing those who truly seek to harm our people instead of vilifying one another with the viciousness of our enemies.