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There won’t be blood

by Rob Eshman

January 10, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Bill Clinton, Ann Coulter, James Carville -- over the years American Jewish University's top-notch lecture series has hosted plenty of people who have infuriated plenty of people.

But evidently, when it comes to being infuriating, Karl Rove is in a class unto himself.

How else to explain the barrage of e-mails and phone calls that series organizer Gady Levy received when he announced Rove would be the second speaker in the 2008 season? The thrust of the complaints: How dare Levy give a forum to this man?

Levy was shocked.

"Bottom line, the purpose of the Public Lecture Series is to engage the community in an honest discussion about the issues, which includes both sides of the debate," he explained to me in an e-mail. "I wanted to include Rove specifically because he does not represent the voice of the majority of our community. I felt (and still do) that it is critical for us to gain insight into his perspective on the current administration and the issues of the day."

Both sides of an issue -- how dare Levy. Something has happened in the Jewish community, all across the political and religious spectrum, and it isn't good.

Somehow too many people in the Jewish community have become stuck in a very dangerous place: their comfort zone.

They are loathe to confront and really hear ideas that differ from their own, and they cleave to the company of voices that echo their preconceived ideas and long-formed opinions.

A few people have picked up on this.

"There was a time," Haaretz's Gideon Levy said in an interview with The Nation, "when you'd ask two Israelis a question, and you'd get three different opinions. Now you only get one."

In The Jerusalem Post, columnist Larry Derfner noted the problem in Israel, where public opinion fell into "lockstep" behind the war in Lebanon, the invasion of Iraq and the criticism of the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran. How different, Derfner writes, from the Israel of old, where robust public debate was the norm.

"This is a society that's been brainwashed by consent," he wrote. "And when all hands are raised together, it not only enhances certainty, it offers the added comfort of unity."

J.J. Goldberg, The Forward's brilliant executive editor, wrote that the national Jewish debate is similarly afflicted. In fighting nouveau anti-Semitism, he wrote, "It doesn't help when Jews ignore or deny Israel's genuine shortcomings. It doesn't help when they overreact to criticism -- hostile, benign or just clumsy -- and intimidate their critics into resentful silence, reinforcing their enemies' worst stereotypes."

The response to Goldberg's essay? One organization head accused him of blaming the Jews for their own victimization.

And here at home things aren't any better.

Over the past few years I've noticed an evolution in Jewish events from debates to "panel discussions" to "presentations." That is, from dissent to delivery.

Last month, a worthy group called the American Freedom Alliance presented "The Cases and Consequences of Anti-Americanism Around the World," and featured three speakers whose political differences on the issue are hardly diametrically opposed.

Another group presented a panel on "Women in Islam," which featured three speakers, all critics of Islam.

And I can't tell you how many events I've read about -- and some I've attended -- titled, "Understanding the Middle East," and that featured former Ambassador Dennis Ross. The man is sharp, no doubt. But the first and last word on understanding the Middle East?

We are the people of the prophetic tradition, but you can be almost certain that our panel discussions are designed to thwart true dissent and probing inquiry -- the hallmarks of that tradition. They offer the illusion of debate in a safe, bloodless format.

And even where prophets are invited, even they could use a reality check, now and then.

The danger of groupthink should be apparent to anyone who makes an honest accounting of the past couple decades. Would Oslo have ended in such disaster if the left had heeded the caution of honest dissenters? The Republicans today, as author David Frum has pointed out, face years in the political wilderness. If they had heard and perhaps incorporated the insights of dissenting opinions on Iraq, global warming and oil dependency, not only the party -- but the world -- would be better off today. Just ask Karl Rove.

My plea is simple. Expose yourself. Challenge your beliefs. Daily, on your own time, but also each time your group or organization decides to explore an issue. Expand by at least one the number of responsible dissenting opinions on your panels, symposia, presentations and conferences.

I don't mean that cantankerous guy who can never agree on Robert's Rules of Orders doesn't count -- those are a shekel a dozen in any organization. I don't want someone who's just disagreeable, but someone who fundamentally disagrees.

What about, you might ask, if my panel is on Orthodox approaches to issues of human sexuality, does that mean we need to seek out a gay Reform rabbi? Doesn't the title presuppose the participants? Am I saying the Republican Jewish Coalition should invite Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles)? Should the Democrats for Israel host U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon)? Yes, yes and yes. As cozy and affirming as it is to hear iterations of our own hard-won wisdom repeated back prior to coffee and cookies, it really doesn't do anyone much good. Many of the issues we face today are complex enough to be post-partisan, pandenominational and cross-movement. That's why the most coveted voting bloc these days is Independent.

That's not such a bad thing for a mind, or a People, to be.

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