May 30, 2002
Rules of Engagement
The return of suicide bombings following Israel's military campaign in the West Bank demonstrates, among other things, that Israel and its supporters are in this struggle for the long haul.
And as the time span increases, so does the chance of dissension within the Jewish community.
Last week in Los Angeles, the inevitable crack turned into something more like a compound fracture. An article written by Middle East commentator Avi Davis and posted on the Web site standwithus.org took issue with UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller's statements and actions regarding Israel's current crisis.
It's fair to say that the two men, who have both contributed opinions to these pages, are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum when it comes to Israel. But Davis didn't attack the rabbi's positions on their merits. He attacked the rabbi.
He questioned Seidler-Feller's motives, he impugned his loyalty, he called him names and, in a bit of de riguer Jewish rhetorical excess, dragged in a Nazi-era reference.
In short, Davis fell prey to the temptation we all feel, on occasion, to really go after those with whom we disagree.
If only we, like Spiderman's nemesis the Green Goblin, could stop the angry voices before they get out.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein once wrote in these pages that the theologian Martin Buber divided all human interactions into two categories -- I-Thou and I-It. "But he failed to notice that there's a third category," Feinstein wrote, "it is one I witness regularly working in the Jewish community. It's called I-You-*'@%?'@!!!. This is the relationship wherein a difference of opinion or a complaint quickly and seamlessly turn into a bitter personal attack. I don't object merely to the position you represent or the job you've done ... I object to you!"
Jewish unity is a preposterous idea -- never has existed, never will -- but Jewish tolerance is the brass ring. It allows us to build community from a multiplicity of voices, it enables us to learn from dissent and criticism, it keeps the disenchanted from becoming the disenfranchised.
Davis and the people at StandWithUs quickly felt the ramifications of his words. There were angry calls and e-mails, whispers of lawsuits. There was a stern letter signed by 40 impressive names --many of whom might disagree with Seidler-Feller's opinions but value his intellect and dedication. StandWithUs, wrote the signatories, must "never allow such an egregious violation of decency and ahavat Yisrael to go unchecked."
Davis asserted he didn't intend to write a character assassination, but if the piece came across as such, so be it. "I don't know how to speak to people who so steadfastly deny reality," he wrote to me, referring to Seidler-Feller.
But StandWithUs was contrite. A month after the incident began, the organization pulled Davis' piece from its Web site and issued an apology.
"We made a mistake. We realize [the commentary] should not have gone out," StandWithUs organizer Roz Rothstein told me. One lesson Rothstein said she learned: always monitor Internet posts. Like the proverbial feathers from a ripped-open pillow, once a work is published on the Internet, it defies re-collection.
One hand at work here was that of David Suissa, founder of Olam and a StandWithUs supporter. He signed the letter defending Seidler-Feller. "Avi went too far," Suissa told me. "You can disagree all you want with somebody, but the minute you start impugning motives, you've crossed the line."
Ever solution-oriented, Suissa posted a link on his Web site, olamforisrael.org, titled "Top Ten Commandments for Jewish Unity." No. 7 is, "I Won't Question Motive." The other nine are worth a look as well.
"The world was created with words," Feinstein once wrote in these pages. " It is within our capacity to annihilate it with words."