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Jewish Journal

Some Jewish questions for rabbis Jacobs and Rosove

by Gerald M. Steinberg

December 18, 2013 | 3:10 pm

A woman walks near livestock in the Bedouin village of Bir Mshash in Israel's southern Negev on Dec. 10. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

A woman walks near livestock in the Bedouin village of Bir Mshash in Israel's southern Negev on Dec. 10. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Asking questions is a central aspect of Jewish tradition – indeed, formulating good questions is more important than trying to provide answers. Questions reflect the complexity of the human condition, as well as humility in acknowledging the inability to give ready answers in the face of this complexity

Unfortunately, in their attempts to respond to my article on misleading and immoral campaigns related to the complex issue of Israel’s Negev Bedouin citizens, Rabbis Jill Jacobs and John Rosove were quick to provide snarky “answers,” instead of posing good questions.

Before any exploration of this complexity, or acknowledging any possible errors by political advocacy groups such as T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights, North America), Jacobs launches into a harsh attack, claiming that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort “to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.” Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language. Surely, public debate and criticism in the Jewish tradition cannot be reduced to defamation.

In the Jewish prophetic tradition, moral values do not exist in an imagined ideal, entirely detached from the complexities of the real world, and designed to tell others how they should act. In contrast, Jacob’s response skips over the complexities (yes, that word again) in the Bedouin’s transition from nomadic to modern conditions, the rampant crime and social problems (including oppression of women) resulting from polygamy, carefully argued rulings of  the Israeli High Court, the false and politicized claim to be “indigenous” in the Negev , and other crucial facts. 

In many ways, Jacobs’ “response” is actually a non-response.  She skips over most of the substance that I provided in my article, and omits any mention of “Jewish Voices for Peace,” a million dollar organization funded anonymously whose main objective is “driving a wedge” in the Jewish community over Israel. The involvement of a group that is at best agnostic on a “two-state” framework, and that cannot be said to “love Israel,” should worry Jacobs.

The one question in Jacobs’ attack is rhetorical, followed immediately by a demeaning and snarky pseudo-answer: “Does [Steinberg] really believe that 800 rabbis …. oppose ‘Jewish self-determination and sovereignty’? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.” This is hardly consistent with “healthy debate” and “the best of our Jewish values.” I do, however, believe that 800 rabbis have been misled by a simplistic and detached narrative promoted by Truah and other political advocacy NGOs.   

In his post, Rabbi Rosove’s continues the abusive and insulting assault.  His recollection of a presentation I was asked to make before his synagogue group in Jerusalem could be politely termed “idiosyncratic.” He was “shocked and disappointed” that I spoke, as I do before dozens of groups every year, on the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.) Had he remembered, Rosove might have admitted that our group had an intense and high-level discussion, reflecting the complexities involved, with many good questions on all sides of these very important issues.

Rabbi Rosove is right that “it is contrary to Jewish tradition to withhold legitimate criticism.” The same should hold true for voicing criticism of powerful NGOs that exploit the language of human rights and of campaigns that contribute to abuse, not love, of Israel.

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