November 23, 2010
It is fashionable these days to say that all causes and issues are complicated. Polarity is out, complexity is in. There’s more than one side to every story, and you must appreciate the nuances and subtleties of a subject instead of digging in your heels and yelling to make your point. A month ago, the coolest voice in America, Jon Stewart, gathered a couple hundred thousand people in Washington, D.C., just to make that point.
His cause was the very idea of causes and how to engage without screaming past each other. In polite company today, it’s hard to disagree with anyone who tells you, “It’s not black and white.”
Well, it turns out that’s not true. There really is such a thing as black and white.
I saw it firsthand the other night at the American Jewish University during a panel discussion of Gal Beckerman’s new book on the Soviet Jewry movement, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone.”
Just consider this: Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller was leading the panel, and there were no fireworks or controversy whatsoever. When’s the last time that happened?
At no time during the evening did anyone say things like, “Well, in all fairness to the Soviet regime, there’s another side to this story…” Or, “We have to remember that the Jews in the Soviet Union were somewhat responsible for their predicament,” or “It’s not as simple as you’re trying to make it out to be ...” and so forth.
That’s because there was no “other side” to the Soviet Jewry movement. It was the cause that brought Jews together, the cause to end all causes; what Sam Freedman calls “one of the great liberation struggles of modern times.” Millions of innocent people — in this case, Jews — wanted the freedom to flee oppression. How do you beat that?
Over the years, I’ve met countless Jews who were personally involved with the movement. I’ve heard about the marches, the demonstrations and the clandestine visits to the Soviet Union. For some reason, when Jews reminisce about the Soviet Jewry movement, they get all misty-eyed.
It was the same thing the other night. In addition to Seidler-Feller and Beckerman, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sat on the panel and shared his own war stories of his days as a Soviet Jewry activist in the 1970s. No matter how much the panelists tried to inject some controversy — internal disagreements within the movement on the methods of protest, the division between the “renegade” activists and the established institutions — it was all pretty tame. It was clear that when it came to the justness of the cause, there was zero controversy.
The evening was a rare Jewish love-fest.
As the panelists were waxing nostalgic, I had this crazy thought: What if, instead of the Soviet Jewry movement, the subject of the evening had been the modern-day movement of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria? What if a legal expert was making a compelling case that Israel’s presence in the West Bank was in strict accordance with the norms of international law, while a representative of Peace Now was making the exact opposite case? What would be the mood then?
Would it be “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Animal House”? Would Seidler-Feller be calling politely for questions or would he be calling for security?
Here’s the thing that the evening brought home for me: I think we’ve run out of epic, black-and-white causes. A woman’s right to vote was a black-and-white cause. A black person’s right to sit in the front of a bus was a black-and-white cause.
A million people’s right to flee oppression from a communist regime is an epic black-and-white issue. It’s a political issue with no nuance and no other side.
For the Jews, where have all those issues gone?
Expelling 8,000 Jews from Gaza? Starting a defensive war against Hamas? Pushing for a second settlement freeze when the first one didn’t seem to help? Taking out Iran’s nuclear weapons? Pushing for peace talks that keep failing? No matter which side of these issues you’re on, you can’t tell me they’re black and white.
The problem, as I see it, is that while so many of our modern-day issues are anything but black and white, our body language is so often only black and white. Jews from the left and right fight for their views with the same certitude that Jews fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews.
We are nostalgic for the absence of ambiguity. It’s hard to go out and march and yell for a cause that is full of nuance. So we pretend the nuance doesn’t exist, and we take out the placards and do our yelling.
We are also nostalgic for finality and resolution. One of the remarkable aspects of the Soviet Jewry movement was that it had a beginning and an ending — a clear black-and-white ending.
The only clear black-and-white ending I see these days is that we have no more black-and-white issues.