Thursday, August 16, 2007

Debate is healthy

The NY Times reports that Walt and Mearsheimer, the two guys who wrote a very controversial article criticizing the American Jewish Lobby are finding it hard to be booked for appearances, now that their book is coming out.
I think this is very unfortunate. The article is painful reading, but it is useful reading. People, and particularly Jews outside of Israel, who don't usually hear conflicting sides of the story without thinking the sky is falling and the nazis are back, should be able to make up their own minds. They should hear the criticism and using their seichl (their brains), decide if they agree or not.
The knee jerk reaction that everything that Israel does is good and everybody who criticizes it is bad will not cut the mustard in this day and age, which is basically what these guys are saying.
We live in very complex times in which almost the entire Arab world is against Israel and against the Jews, in a way that makes the recent past look like a bed of roses (not according to the writers of the article, but that is one of several things we don't agree on). Instead of reverting to our shtetl mentality, it is precisely an opportunity, not for hysterical overprotection and censorship, but for open, creative, profoundly different and intelligent thinking. It's not "they want to throw us all into the sea", but rather "what can we do, in politics, diplomacy, strategy, philosophy, ethics, society" to change and improve this nightmarish situation? It looks like for years, we have done nothing but radicalize it. So something in this approach is clearly not working.
Giving the cold shoulder to what seems a legitimate, if unsympathetic, complaint is narrowminded at best. It doesn't help the cause of Israel one bit. Quite the contrary. We have to be smarter than that. I think we Jews know when someone is a real Israel hater and when someone is just positing a contrary opinion. If we don't, we have to learn to make the distinction NOW. These two guys don't seem to be particularly fond of Israel, but they do not wish its disappearance. Furthermore, they have a point with which I agree on: The lack of debate does not help Israel nor the US.
Not everybody has to like Israel. I don't like a lot of countries. That doesn't mean I want them out.
As usual, I refer back to Israel itself, where people have very divergent political ideas, some of them quite extreme on either side. Israelis don't all think that for their sake they should all stop thinking or they should always think they are always right. Neither should we.
A highly enlightening example was last week's piece by David Remnick in the New Yorker about Avrum Burg, who is scandalously, but legitimately questioning what he considers Israel's persecuted, victimized mentality. He has some very tough truths to say. Coming from him, they are very provocative ways to open up debate. If someone not Jewish or Israeli were to say the same thing, they'd probably be accused of antisemitism. It's a thin line, and one we have to learn to parse as well as we do the Talmud. Censorship and hysterical overreaction are not the answer. I've also heard David Grossman speak of wishing Israel to be a normal country. There is definitely a sense that Israel lives isolated from the rest of the world, and not only because the world won't come out and play with it, not only because it is geographically cloistered by hostile, undemocratic nations, but because it has also painted itself into a lonely, ugly corner. This is terrible. Israel still is a civilized, democratic, free society. Perhaps it's time to change its mentality and its strategy. It is in its best interest to start living as a modern, democratic, secular nation like all the other civilized nations on Earth, with everything that entails.
We need to listen to the dissenters (which is not the same as the haters), from within and without. We need to allow ourselves the possibility of reflection and dissent. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves.

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