clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Israel rejects a key value of Jewish life

Keeping two American congresswomen out of the country because of their beliefs is contrary to both American and Jewish ideals.

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) left, and Ilhan Omar (D-MIN) at a news conference in July.
U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) left, and Ilhan Omar (D-MIN) at a news conference in July. Both were barred Thursday from visiting Israel.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Nothing shows strength like the ability to listen. To not merely tolerate, but consider those who disagree with you. That’s a mark of confidence.

To hear contrasting opinions, weigh what merit those arguments might have, and even be open to the possibility that it is you, yourself, who could be wrong.

Despots never get this. They’re too fraudulent, too terrified of losing their slippery grip on unmerited authority. So of course Donald Trump, that most hollow of puffed-up would-be strongmen, would fail to understand this, completely.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Reps. Omar and Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted on Thursday, of the pending visit to Israel of two American members of Congress. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, are not a disgrace. Nor anti-Semitic. They articulate concerns that many — maybe even most — American Jews feel over the path Israel is taking — its growing nationalism, its catering to ultra-Orthodox fanaticism, its general neglect of the fate of four million Palestinians under its semi-control.

Yes, the two also encourage the BDS movement — the belief that Israeli businesses should be boycotted, investments in Israel should be divested, and sanctions placed until Israel ... well, does whatever it is the Palestinians want it to do: the Jews vanish, march into the Mediterranean Sea and let Palestinians have their country, I suppose.

I don’t agree with the congresswomen here. But then again, given that the BDS movement, like all boycotts, has scant actual impact, beyond giving college sophomores something harmless to feel passionate about, I don’t see how support of this chimera is a pickaxe at the foundation of Israel either.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels differently. Not an hour after Trump’s tweet, the pair were barred from Israel. Blocking their visit is a defeat, another blunder by a nation that, when I was growing up, strode from success to success.

Condemnation of Israel can certainly be a form of anti-Semitism; that doesn’t put Israel’s policies beyond critique. Here, the remedy is worse than the ailment.

Judaism is clear about disagreement.

“The Talmud says that divergent views can both be seen as the words of the living G‑d,” writes Rabbi Levi Brackman, the dash representing the Chassidic practice of not spelling out the ineffable name of the creator. “As long as we are taught to appreciate that divinity is also found within the view of people who disagree with us, then respect and dignity will be paid to intellectual opponents.”

The London-born scholar, in an essay, “The Art of Passionate Disagreement” inspired by his move from Britain to Colorado, is “significantly disappointed and disturbed” at the state of discourse in his new home.

“Healthy and balanced political debate does not seem to exist in the United States,” Brackman writes. “Instead, both sides of the political spectrum seem to have their own media outlets where they vent their incredibly polarized and uncontested political views—often with the aim of discrediting the opinions of their ideological opponents.”

Ya think? Debate is the heart of Jewish identity, or used to be. Rabbis from antiquity to today sat long into the night, arguing the law. It is also the heart of American identity, or used to be. The reason we have a First Amendment is so that all opinions can be uttered, and citizens are trusted to sort them out.

Yes, it allows Nazis and various other haters to spew language that European nations stifle by law. But up to now openness has kept us on the right track, roughly, and European anti-hate statutes aren’t preventing their own ugly rise of anti-Semitism.

Whenever anyone refers to that Norman Rockwell “Freedom of Speech” painting showing a man at a New England town meeting standing, delivering his frank opinion, I repeat a remark made by a docent at the excellent Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

“Notice all the ears in the painting,” he said. “Rockwell deliberately painted them slightly larger than life. Because freedom of speech is meaningless if nobody listens.”

Bingo. Covering your ears, refusing to listen to disagreement, is both un-American and a betrayal of Jewish values.