The News Isn't the Silencing. It's the Debate

The event was billed as a discussion about "What It Means To Be Pro-Israel." It was actually a screening of a new film ostensibly aimed at proving that the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group, J Street, is aligned "with the Arab side" against Israel. The film, The J Street Challenge, features talking heads of the Jewish right haughtily describing their opponents as arrogant. It begins with a quote from George Orwell, an unintentionally appropriate touch in an thoroughly Orwellian movie. By the final credits, it turns out that the film is also somewhat mislabeled: Its ultimate target isn't J Street or its support for a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The target is American Jewish liberalism as such.

The screening took place last Thursday in a rented hall at the University of Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia—the umbrella organization of the city's Jewish community, which could reasonably be expected to stay neutral in internal ideological arguments. The cosponsors included a predictable list of right-wing organizations—but also Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the roof body for Jewish student activity on local campuses. At Penn, one of Hillel's most active constituents is J Street's student arm, J Street U. Stunned student leaders charged that by sponsoring the screening, Hillel's adult board had moved from hosting debate to smearing a member group.

(Full disclosure: I've been a paid outside speaker at events organized by J Street—and by other organizations with a wide spectrum of views on the Israel-Palestine issue.)

One way of looking at the Philadelphia affair is that it's the latest in a new wave of attempts to shut down debate among American Jews about Israel. As an Israeli visiting America, I will parenthetically note that the would-be silencers look ludicrous. They insist that Jews speak in one voice, as if Jews have ever spoken in one voice about anything or even put a value on doctrinal unity; they want to stop arguments about Israeli policy when those same arguments are carried on, in gorgeous cacophony, every day in Israel's parliament, press and half its living rooms.

But let's put that small absurdity aside. It's important to see the fracas in Philly and elsewhere from an additional angle: Debate is breaking out all over in American Jewry, and especially among younger Jews. The old organizations that have tried to equate "pro-Israel" with support for hawkish policies in Israel are on the defensive.

In late February, for instance, there was a flurry of news reports in Jewish publications and the general media on clashes over limiting speech within the Jewish community about Israel. In one case, the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial To the Holocaust in New York canceled a planned book evening with journalist and historian John Judis, author of Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. The museum director, David Marwell, said his staff planned the event without his knowledge and criticized what he said was the book's depiction of "the pernicious impact of American Zionist and pro-Israel influence on American policy." Even discussing that idea seemed too dangerous. Then, a few days later, apparently yielding to criticism, Marwell reinstated the book event. So let's take a deep breath and ask: What was the news here–the cancellation or the fact that the discussion will take place?

Another item: The principal of Ramaz, a prestigious Modern Orthodox high school in New York City, overruled an invitation from his students' Politics Society to Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University to speak at the school. The invitation didn't mean that the students agreed in advance with Khalidi's perspective; it meant that they were ready to consider or contend with it. The principal didn't think they were ready for that. Within American Jewry, the Modern Orthodox strand is known for leaning to conservative politics in general, and in particular to hawkish, pro-settlement views on Israel. The news here wasn’t the cancellation; it was the Orthodox students breaking out of the bubble to invite Khalidi.

Ramaz, by the way, advertises its academic level by listing the colleges where recent graduates study. The list includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth—and Columbia, where some of this year's grads may well register for Khalidi's courses. So: After a summer's vacation or a gap year, will they be intellectually ready to weigh his presentation of history?

According to The J Street Challenge, no. One theme of the film is the naiveté of young people today who, according to Daniel Gordis of Shalem College in Jerusalem, are living in a fantasy of a world without religions or nations from John Lennon's "Imagine." Gordis's disdain for young minds is, shall we say, an interesting approach for a college VP.

But then, the film also presents Robi Damelin as an example of the foolishness of seeing support for a two-state agreement as support for Israel. Damelin is Israeli. Her son was killed while serving as an Israeli reservist at a West Bank checkpoint during the Second Intifada. She's a member of the Parents' Circle, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict and seek a peaceful resolution. Mind-bogglingly, though, the film also shows conservative American blogger Noah Pollak as he decries the "arrogance involved of an organization … of Americans who don't live there, whose children are not in the army, whose family members are not the ones who could be killed by suicide bombers, giving instructions to Israel…" From this we learn that it's arrogant for U.S. Jews take a position similar to Damelin's, but it's the essence of humility for Pollak to want Israelis to bear the dangers of permanent occupation. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Pollak is quite willing to have my children bear the risks of not making peace.

What's the suggested cure for naiveté? Certainly not checking the film's repeated insinuation that J Street supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; a two-second Internet search would lead to J Street's repeated condemnations of BDS. Rather, the film prescribes a dose of what's supposed to be history of the conflict—in fact, a tired account of an unflawed Israel and changeless Arab positions. As proof that Arabs aren't interested in peace, for example, we're offered the 1967 Khartoum Resolution, in which Arab states rejected recognizing or negotiating with Israel. (Actually, the meaning of the Khartoum Resolution was more complicated, but I'll skip the scholarly debate about that.) You'd never know that the two most important signatories, Egypt and Jordan, have since negotiated with Israel and signed lasting peace agreements.

I could give a long list of the inaccuracies, distortions and possible slander in the movie. It would get tiresome. Facts obviously weren't a major concern to the producers. The purpose was to reassure those who believe in a threatened myth, to give them the chance to boo those who threaten it, and to wrap the whole thing up with an attack on people who believe that conflicts, or at least this conflict, can be resolved by human effort. For anyone who has moved on to a more complex view of Israel, and for anyone who believes that it is a Jewish value to work at making the world a better place, The J Street Challenge is likely to produce nausea or pity. The final Orwellian touch is the name of the group that produced it: Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

"Our board was outraged not by the movie" as part of an open dialogue about Israel, "but for Hillel to cosponsor [it] was in our eyes really wrong," Ryan Daniels, the co-chair of J Street U at Penn told me this week. "Nothing like this has happened where Hillel attacked the work of students, ever." The students' protests were not only justified but necessary, as were objections within the Jewish community to Federation sponsorship. At Hillel, students weren't consulted. At the Jewish Federation, carefully formulated guidelines on Israel events were reportedly ignored by the event's backers. The screening was a gambit by a minority.

And that's a critical part of the story: The defenders of the myth are now fighting a rear-guard action. The strange idea of keeping Jews from arguing about Israel is going out of fashion.

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