Ours must be a big, broad and open tent
History teaches that hatred distorts, perverts and diminishes the hater and the hated. For millennia, the Jewish People have been targeted by an irrational, overwhelming force, what historian Robert Wistrich calls the world’s “longest hatred.” Tragically, as this anti-Semitism became illegitimate following the Holocaust, it morphed into anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, what now may be considered the world’s “trendiest hatred.”
This hip hatred, also known as the delegitimization movement, has emerged as a major obstacle to peace. The systematic anti-Zionist campaign, fuelled by Arab money and now embraced by radical leftists, makes many Jews fear for their lives, abhor compromise, and reduce the world to a reductionist, dualistic with-us-or-against-us paradigm. As victims of this unreasonable evil, Jews must continue denouncing our detractors, while being wary not to be warped by the fight.
Unfortunately, the power of today’s continuing anti-Israel anti-Semitism makes too many of us too quick to caricature those with whom we disagree as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. There are genuine anti-Zionists and anti-Semites in the world. Why recruit more to their ranks by calling sincere critics sworn enemies?
I do not want to live in an Israel or in a Jewish community where dissent is quashed, where with-me-or-against-me politics reigns, where political life becomes about denouncing rebels as foes. Yes, I draw red lines, but I also build a big broad tent – open on all four sides, like Abraham’s – with blue-and-white poles, always trying to find common ground among Israel’s supporters, even if we have different partisan spins or policy prescriptions.
It pains me to hear U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Disagreeing with some Israelis about how best to achieve peace with the Palestinians does not make you an anti-Zionist. Moreover, labelling as an “anti-Semite” someone who has supported Israel publicly for decades, who endorses Israel’s right to exist, and whose brother converted to Judaism, is absurd. Such hysteria diminishes us all – and so broadens the term “anti-Semite” as to make it meaningless, thus letting the genuine, evil, anti-Semites off the hook. Just as stretching the term “apartheid” so broadly by applying it to Israel saps it of its racial dimensions and true pejorative power, so, too, does stretching the term “anti-Semite” to apply to Kerry remove the sting from what should be the serious accusation of Jew-hatred.
When I was a student living in Boston in the 1980s, we knew Kerry as Israel’s friend – and knew that his brother, Cam, was Jewish. In 1985, when I visited Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who were blocked from immigrating to Israel, as “protection” I wrote into my phone book the “phone numbers” of Cam Kerry, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy. I made up the numbers, using 617 for the first two and 202 for Kennedy as area codes. In that pre-Internet age, I figured that if I ran into trouble, I would mention their names, and Kerry’s Jewish connection, to delude the Soviets into believing I was well-connected.
More broadly, it pains me to hear from Jews who care about Israel how repudiated they feel when they dare dissent about Israeli policy. “I’m tired of going up to friends’ cottages or weddings and having them and their parents take jabs at me,” a former student with whom I respectfully disagree about Israel’s Palestinian policy recently wrote me. “It’s this monopolization of ‘the’ community… that ‘If you don’t support us on this one, you’re not one of us’ tone… that really put[s] me off.”
I recognize the delegitimization movement’s toxicity and have warned that more intellectuals, including Jews, are escalating from criticizing Israeli policy to rejecting Israel’s right to exist. I also realize that delegitimization most threatens impressionable young Jewish students, some of whom reject Israel to be trendy or popular. But I also recognize the danger of demonizing some of our smartest, most critical, most passionate young people because they disagree with us.
Democracy begins in disputation – which is also what the Talmud is all about. We, the people of the Book, should never be the people of the closed black-and-white book, but of a rich, multi-dimensional, open, colourful and welcoming book, distinguishing between true friends and real foes, and encouraging the kind of vibrant debate that made the Talmud the Talmud, and the Jewish People not just survive but thrive.