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Jewish Journal

Silence on Israel Is Not Golden

by Rabbi Susan Laemmle

January 9, 2003 | 7:00 pm

For Avi Davis, truth is a blazing light threatening to blind the unprepared.

There are no moderating factors or gradations, just a division between those who can handle its assault and those who can't.

In contrast to Davis' unitary absolutism, traditional Jewish wisdom tends to frame things in twos and threes. So we read in Pirke Avot 1:18, the teaching of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, that "the world is established on three principles: truth, justice and peace."

I write as one of those who formulated and then signed "the most recent lachrymose statement on the back page of The Jewish Journal" that draws Davis' ire. For my colleagues and me, the truth that we live in the Diaspora, rather than Israel, must be balanced by the transnational demand to pursue justice and peace.

Feeling that demand, we did indeed "buy advertising space" in The Jewish Journal -- not to weep and wail, but to share our concerns with others in a responsible public way. All of us have spent considerable time, if not lived for some years, in Israel.

I myself paid Israeli taxes, took part in neighborhood patrols and spent hours in my sealed bedroom during the Gulf War. I know the difference between living there and here.

But surely the State of Israel belongs not only to those who live within its borders. This entity that was envisioned, prayed and worked for by generations of our people must exist as, in some sense, the state of the Jewish people. Even Israeli citizens will need to fly home to vote on Jan. 28. But certainly, other ways of joining the national debate are open to Jews abroad who care deeply about "Hatikvah," the 2,000-year-old hope that is Israel.

The ad titled "One Community, Many Voices" represented one such way. It sketched what we see as the essential ingredients for peace with justice: the end of occupation, withdrawal from settlements and secure borders for both peoples. But our main assertion is captured in our name, which insists that Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people) is strengthened, rather than undermined, by vigorous debate about pivotal matters.

In our view, having a free and open exchange of ideas makes it more likely that new understandings will emerge. It is precisely our Jewish willingness to challenge even close-to-the-bone sacred truths that wins the respect of outsiders, while making our community deeply resilient, even in hard times.

Davis tells us that his Zionist education traced a strong, red line around criticizing Israel from abroad. As the Oslo process went forward, he bit his tongue rather than express bitter opposition to policies pursued by the democratically elected government of Israel.

What shall we say about such restraint? Is it really admirable? Don't journalists, public leaders and even individuals in democratic countries engage in a constant process of evaluating the actions of other governments, as well as their own? Clearly, the give and take of public opinion plays a role in moderating conflict, both internal and external, around the world.

Without global reaction, a neo-Nazi might still be in office in Austria, and India might well be warring against Pakistan. By what right and moral standard do we exempt Israel from this court of world opinion, and especially from being judged by those who know and care the most -- Diaspora Jews?

Those of us who spent our precious time and dollars on the One Community, Many Voices ad have no desire to micromanage Israeli military and governmental operations. We really do know the difference between living here and there, and we also have our individual lines of work as teachers, rabbis and professionals.

What we claim for ourselves is simply the right to participate in a substantive communal discussion about where, in broad terms, Israel is heading. It cannot be that supporting the State of Israel means agreeing with everything that happens or gets planned there. Like good parenting, loving Israel requires asking hard questions, looking far into the future and spotting internal contradictions.

In order for us to do that effectively, we American Jews need to mount serious programs in which substantive knowledge is communicated, a range of views gets expressed and rational questions may be posed. Unfortunately, these are not the sort of programs being presented currently.

Scholars with genuine expertise on the Middle East and Jewish history are passed over in favor of those who encourage distrust of academic learning. Instead of urging college students to take classes in international relations and other fields that would genuinely equip them to understand world events and represent Israel knowledgeably, huge public relations campaigns get organized to teach them and their parents how to "stand with" Israel. Rather than helping people sort out various ideas and options, too many communal leaders and rabbis are yielding their responsibility to a specialized organization with a single point of view.

Davis' contention that the forums he participates in or attends mostly feature alternative points of view cannot be disputed by someone who has not shadowed him. Others of us have been exposed to speakers whose idea of providing general, "centrist" background has been to criticize everything different from the Sharon government's current policies. How can it be, one asks, that it is right to denounce the policies and practices of past democratically elected governments of Israel, while unequivocally upholding those of the present one?

I have in my office a hanging scroll purchased in Israel, on which the words of Isaiah 62:1 are written. While they are, of course, open to interpretation and application, I take them as a watchword for conscientious activism. Often, they help me continue holding to account the Israel in which my people's past and future are so deeply invested.

Rather than Davis remaining silent when he disagrees and speaking up when he agrees with particular Israeli governments and policies, I would want him and others to join "One Community, Many Voices" in continuing conversation under the banner of Isaiah's words: "For Zion's sake, I will not be silent; for Jerusalem's sake, I will not be still."



Rabbi Susan Laemmle is the dean of religious life at USC.

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