The Moral High Ground

Moderate cultural dialogue is drowning, and we should be alarmed. A recent JTA article, 7 Anti-Zionist Jewish artists pull out of California Jewish museum’s exhibit to protest Israel, is an example of how waterlogged moderate dialogue has become in cultural and artistic settings.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum made efforts to present the diversity of Jewish thought on Israel — Zionist, anti-zionist, somewhere in the complex middleground — and representatives openly communicated with the artists about what the experience would be like. But stunningly, the anti-zionist artists still withdrew from the gallery, writing “they were concerned about ‘potential curatorial both “sides-ism”’ and about the possibility that their pieces would appear next to ones that ‘grieve Jewish deaths without acknowledging the genocide of Palestinians.’”

The fundamental belief of those who decry bothsidesism is that there can be no moral equivocation in the charged issues of today. And this is a glamorous idea, one with appeal, but it is predicated on the assumption that there is always a precise moral right-and-wrong and some prophet with the perfect clarity to authorize it.

In another generation we might call this assumption a religious one; in the words of Yuval Noah Harari, “if a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.” The idea that bothsidesism, moderate dialogue, should be deterred and attacked, is an expression of belief in an absolute morality. 

This religion has little in common with the Jewish one, which emphasizes an ultimate Authority but deems moderate debate sacred. Diaspora Jews must cleave to the tradition of machloket l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of Heaven. In Judaism, the oral Torah becomes another layer of authority, a compilation of arguments and dissenting voices, and this dialectic is considered a holy one.

Jonathan Rosen writes, in The Talmud and the Internet, that the Talmud — “which consists in large part of men arguing with each other, often disagreeing wildly” — has the “status of a book written, or at least inspired, by God.” In other words, the commitment to having difficult human conversations is a holy occupation in the Jewish tradition. The attack on these conversations is a profoundly un-Jewish one.

By withdrawing from a gallery that made every effort to respectfully include diverse voices, these artists rejected participating in an imperative conversation that people are already avoiding. They chose echo-chambers over engagement.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum took it gracefully, releasing a statement that “the absence of the artworks — and the missing perspectives that these empty spaces reflect — sincerely aims to hold space for critical thinking at this fraught time…the blank walls speak to a moment when connection may also feel insufficient or impossible.”

While it may feel insufficient or impossible, it is both a Jewish and human obligation: we must embrace the spectrum of narrative and emotion in our cultural spaces. 

The moral high ground is the ledge on which we fight to make room for other voices.

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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