December 10, 2010
Jews Confronting Jews
Roger Cohen closes his latest op-ed column with a rhetorical question that is on the minds of a lot of American Jews. He quotes a 24-year-old man who asks, “Why is it poisoning minds to encourage [young Jews] to think critically about the actions of the Israeli government?” Cohen and the young man are honestly puzzled about why some Jews react so viscerally against criticism of Israel.
The reasons for those reactions are not really mysterious. Human beings have always been torn between the feelings in their hearts and the ideas in their minds, between devotion to principle and loyalty to people. If a co-worker steals office supplies, do you report them? If you love someone who is doing something you think is morally wrong, do you denounce them publicly? Competing claims create difficult choices and strong feelings. Those choices become even harder when social norms are in flux and basic assumptions are in play.
Loyalty has been considered a great virtue in many places and at many times. The naval hero Stephen Decatur spoke for many Americans when he declared, “Our Country! May she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” That was almost 200 years ago. Now a lot of Americans cringe at that notion, particularly those born since 1960. They are more likely to believe that listening to one’s conscience and voicing dissent are higher obligations.
Jews have sometimes felt such strong loyalty to one another that Jews as a group have been branded with the stereotype of “clannishness.” In a world where Jews faced regular, tangible threats to their well-being, however, self-preservation demanded sticking together. In America, where those threats have diminished (though they have not disappeared), many Jews now feel no pressing need to join with one another. But they do feel impelled to stand up against injustice. Loyalty used to trump political opinions; now it is often the other way around. With loyalty redefined as dissent, it is not a coincidence that loyalty oaths themselves have lately become a hot-button issue.
Cohen writes, “Israel-right-or-wrong continues to be the core approach of major U.S. Jewish organizations, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.” He quotes J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami as saying, “These organizations’ view remains essentially that any time you engage in an activity critical of Israel you are trying to destroy the state of Israel.” That assessment, however, doesn’t admit the possibility that AIPAC’s statements don’t represent a “view” so much as a feeling, an emotional response to what they experience as betrayal or abandonment. It assumes that AIPAC is cynically using a political tactic to close off debate, without considering that it may be articulating a profound discomfort, anxiety, or anger about the style and methods of today’s dissenters—much like the discomfort and anger that J Street’s advocates sometimes express towards AIPAC.
That sort of emotional tone-deafness may account for Cohen’s opinion about a recent episode where hecklers of Binyamin Netanyahu were forcibly removed from the room where he was speaking. “Where an important conversation could be held,” he writes, “confrontation prevails.” If he sees a speech by the Prime Minister of Israel at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations as a place where “an important conversation could be held,” Cohen clearly does not understand how people actually talk to one another.
More importantly, Roger Cohen himself actively thwarts conciliation by polarizing the two sides as idealists versus thugs. He places “thinking critically” on the side of the angels, who are doing battle with the benighted forces of “Israel-right-or-wrong.” He talks darkly of a “small, influential group” that opposes J Street speakers and chapters. In the real world, however, there are idealists and pragmatists on both sides, thoughtful people who try in their own ways to balance their values with their loyalties. If Cohen truly wanted debate he would look for common ground instead of demonizing one side at the expense of the other.
That common ground between the two sides does exist. It includes a shared belief in doing the right thing and a special concern for Israel and its people. A welter of conflicting values, assumptions, and strategies—not to mention ad hominem attacks—can sometimes obscure that, but there is a real basis for the discourse that Cohen says he favors. It begins with trying to understand and empathize with the people we disagree with.