December 12, 2002
Many Angry Voices
A newspaper ad stirs up controversy in the Jewish community.
The old joke says, "For every two Jews, you have three opinions." So is it possible that, as members of the Jewish political left complained in an ad on the back page of this newspaper on Nov. 22, "In the name of unity in a time of crisis, the great Jewish tradition of vibrant and open debate has given way to a single voice"?
One of the main organizers of that "One Community, Many Voices" statement, UCLA professor David N. Myers, said of current Jewish political discourse that "the default assumption is that you support the present policies of the Israeli government, and hold Israel free of responsibility for the situation, or you're against us."
In a now well-known incident, conservative political commentator Avi Davis, senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, compared Jews critical of Israel to those who collaborated with the Nazis. In an essay titled "The Jewish People's Fifth Column," Davis wrote, "When I hear these men and women justify their condemnation of Israel as an outgrowth of their Jewish humanism, I am reminded of the infamous Judenraten of the Holocaust." Davis has apologized for the comments, but the essay remains posted on the Freeman Center's Web site. Davis could not be reached for comment.
Myers said he began to feel that anyone expressing disagreement with Israeli policies was no longer accepted in the Jewish community. "I began to ask people, 'Aren't we the community?'" he said. "The drift can be summarized as 'support for Israel is support for the policies of the current Israeli government; anything less is traitorous.' Symptomatic of this is the rise to significance of StandWithUs."
Indeed, StandWithUs founder and executive director Roz Rothstein worries that signatories to that open letter are "airing dirty laundry.... This is not the time to look as though we are all split up. Those of us who are hesitant to criticize Israel right now are hesitant because Israel has a knife at her throat. Their position is, 'we're strong enough to criticize Israel now.' We really would disagree with that."
"I always feel everybody has a good heart," she said. "Everybody believes in peace, whether left, right or center. The difference is in how we would achieve peace."
On the political left, she said, "Some people may be more idealistic. In a perfect world, maybe a dialogue with evil would be possible."
Still, some mainstream leaders in the Los Angeles Jewish community take exception to the idea that the community does not tolerate criticism. Mark Karlan, who co-chairs the Israel Task Force, which coordinates local pro-Israel activities of major Jewish organizations, said, "The ad itself is manifest evidence that those who want to criticize can do so." He says if the signatories of the Many Voices letter feel disenfranchised, "I think that's just the truthful reality of the Jewish community today; most don't want to listen to criticism of Israel now."
Daniel Sokatch, a signer of the letter and executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, disagreed, "It's less that people can't speak, it is the notion that people are being bullied and intimidated intellectually by people who don't want them to say those things." For many, one of the most controversial points of the "One Community, Many Voices" letter had little to do with Israel. While acknowledging "a number of disturbing incidents directed against Jews in this country, especially on college campuses," the letter went on to state, "However, we see little evidence that anti-Semitism poses a serious danger to Jewish life in America."
"We're not interested in waiting until Jewish life in America is in danger," Rothstein said.
Karlan goes for another dire metaphor: "I think that's not an inaccurate statement. But the bottom line is, anti-Semitism is raging throughout the world. We cannot let our guard down. It could hit us the way Sept. 11 did."
In the end, the debate centers on whether the extreme danger to the lives of Israeli citizens translates to a danger to the existence of the state of Israel itself. Myers and others on the left say their criticism is of the current government's policies, but, "We all believe we're with Israel as much as anyone." Other voices in the community disagree. Many voices.