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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002 / 11 Tishrei, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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No Guts, but Lots of Glory

Prominent Jewish dissenters on Israel aren't showing courage | It is a familiar pattern.

A well-known Diaspora Jewish figure speaks out in a secular-news outlet denouncing Israeli policies.

While the majority of Jews gasp at the chutzpah of the denunciation, commentators and journalists speak in hushed tones about the trials and tribulations that the dissenter will be subjected to for breaking with Israel. A few pro-Israel stalwarts will voice outrage, but most of the reaction will, however, center on the "courage" that the Israel critic has shown. All of which will be pure bunk.

Far from having to pay a price for bashing Israel, the critic will be showered with praise and spend the rest of his or her public career having unique access to the opinion pages of secular newspapers, and being the favorite source for prominent journalists searching for a Jewish voice to use against the Jewish state.

This routine has just been played again in Britain, where no less a figure than the highly respected chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, earned applause for telling the Guardian - England's most notoriously anti-Israel newspaper - that Israel's self-defense against a two-year war of Palestinian terror makes him "feel very uncomfortable as a Jew."

Headlined "Israel Set on Tragic Path," Sacks confided to the left-wing paper that "the current situation is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals."

Predictably, Sacks expressed support for Israel, and later said his remarks were taken out of context. (Has anyone else noticed that the two groups most likely to complain about being misquoted are professional athletes and rabbis?)

But most of the commentary after the fact centered on how gutsy the stuffy rabbi - who prefers to be called "professor" - had been to call into question the morality of Israeli actions.


Sacks is hardly the first, nor will he be the last to go this route.

American Reform movement leader Albert Vorspan earned his "courageous" label by bashing Israel in the pages of The New York Times Magazine back in 1988 at the start of the first intifada.

A group of five prominent American Jews who journeyed to Sweden to embrace Yasser Arafat at the end of that year were also lauded for their "courage" in acting out that pathetic farce, which helped set the stage for the first official recognition of the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization.

There is no shortage of contemporary American examples either. The latest is the astonishing letter sent by the executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis to President Bush.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff urged Bush to cut off all "diplomatic, military and financial support" to Israel if it refused to hold a referendum on a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would impose the draconian terms agreed to in 2000 by Arafat, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former President Bill Clinton.

Just to make sure that those terms were enforced, and that the Israeli people were sufficiently intimidated into agreeing to giving half of Jerusalem and 95 percent of Judea and Samaria to the terrorists who have been slaughtering Jews in record numbers for the past two years, Menitoff said that U.S. troops should be stationed in Israel during the referendum vote, and continue occupying the Jewish state until an agreement is signed handing over that responsibility to some other "neutral" third party.

I will not waste any space pointing out how profoundly idiotic or how contrary to the spirit of Zionism, Jewish unity and democracy Menitoff's "plan" is. Fortunately, the leader of the Reform rabbinical association was speaking only for himself and not for his movement. It was quickly disavowed by even the dovish-leaning leaders of Reform, but none denounced Menitoff. Nor is it likely that he will face any consequences.

Let me be clear in stating that I do not believe that any of these statements or actions - however egregious - should set in motion a process by which dissenters are silenced. Those who praised Sachs and those who came before him are right when they say an open debate on the issues is always healthy. The overwhelming majority of Jews who support the Israeli left, and who urge Israeli concessions in peace talks, are sincere in believing that such moves are in the Jewish state's best interest.

A critical stance toward any Israeli government's policies does not make someone "anti-Israel." That is a lesson those of us who were critical of the disastrous policies of the Israeli governments who signed the Oslo accords with Arafat should have learned.


But let's be honest about the "price" dissent from the left on Israel imposes on those who indulge in it.

Anyone who knocks Israel in public will get his or her share of abuse from Jewish loyalists. But those brickbats are generally insignificant when compared to the wide acceptance and generous praise their stands will earn from a non-Jewish world eager to embrace Jews who break with Israel.

Ask yourself how many times prominent Jewish critics of Israel get prime opinion-page space in newspapers like The New York Times or The Philadelphia Inquirer in comparison to the space given there to Jewish supporters of Israel. Rather than showing courage, the dissenters are just showing us how to get published.

One more example will suffice.

In 1999, when Jewish activists denounced the fact that a leader of an American Muslim organization that rationalized terror against Israel was being appointed to a congressional commission on terrorism, a few Jews applauded the move.

In particular, and to the general applause of the secular press, one American Jewish newspaper editorialized in favor of the Muslim and denounced the pro-Israel groups that had spoken up against the move. A week or two later, guess which Jewish editor got an invitation to a state dinner at the White House with all the trimmings?

While most of those who voice their conscience on these issues to separate themselves from Israel's position are doing so out of principle, they are far more likely to benefit from their actions than to suffer for them.

Opportunists who desire notoriety know all too well that bashing Israel is a ticket to secular acceptance just as surely as support for Israel will assure obscurity.

So, while I am utterly opposed to those who would create "blacklists" against dissenters or impose sanctions of some sort on them, I am equally disinterested in hearing another word about their supposed "courage."

Instead, what all of us, on the right and the left, need to do is to weigh the consequences of our words more carefully.

Those who use over-the-top rhetoric to denounce the dissenters should both calm down and lower their voices. Cherems - "ex-communications" - do nothing to reinforce Jewish unity or help Israel. Reasoned debate and tolerance will usually vanquish the critics on the merits and do not feed into the myth of their "martyrdom."

But those who use their right to free speech to bash Israel at a time when it is assailed from all sides with vicious anti-Semitic libels even as it seeks to defend itself from a two-year campaign of bloody terrorism should also rethink their actions. Those Jews who choose to join the mob in calling for pressure on Israel are not only not being brave, they can materially aid the process of delegitimization of Zionism and Israel.

And that is an action I would call gutless.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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