How the Internet Made Impossible an Internal Debate (And Why it’s a Bad Idea Even if We Could)

Categories: Letters From Leadership

As Ami Isseroff schooled me recently, internal dissent is internal and not for sharing. We only contribute to the destroyers of Israel by making public our qualms with Israel, Israelis and the Israeli state. Like sex, it’s naughty and embarassing—so save it for someone you love.

Ami Isseroff not only sought me out to chastise my emailing of highly critical Israel commentary around the internet, but also writes Ameinu asserting likewise that the highly publicized disputes between the AJC and ZOA on one hand and Breaking the Silence with their sponsor, the Union of Progressive Zionists, on the other are accelerating Israel’s immanent demise.

If only it were that simple.

Ami emailed me indicating that myvery passionate disapproval of religiously motivated Israeli settler violence could be used as anti-Israel cannon fodder. Never mind that it was my intent that the essay would zip around the globe to break up the conventional wisdom that we Jews serve Israel’s cause best by allowing others to interpret our communal silence as approval of her ills.

This is a case study for communal police who fall short of censors simply because they lack any practical influence or power to halt a trend which is otherwise unstoppable: a technological revolution which aids the equally unstoppable exposure of long-existing internal disagreements regarding the boundaries of Jewish community. This is threatening to many because it ultimately broadens how American Jews interact with the issue of Israel.

Because it is increasingly “an issue” which can otherwise divide synagogues, community centers, families and organizations along political lines. A certain class of communal police are enforcing a “keep the peace” ethic which is understandable for the same reasons one does not discuss politics at the dinner table with one’s in-laws.

But Ami’s class of would-be censors squelch outbursts of Jewish opinion in order to, in their own words, prevent Jews from enabling our enemies. “legitimate” and occasionally “important” internal discussions between Jews belong behind closed doors. Explains Ami, Breaking the Silence may be on “our side” but they are only helping “their side,” that is Israel’s destroyers, and should stop at once.

It’s a shame that mainstream Israel advocates, including a few self-styled progressives, can think in terms of “our side” and “their side” when the basis of progressive political understanding begins with knowing that dichotomies are oversimplifications. Conventional wisdom regarding “terrorists” and “occupiers” has a habit of dealing harm to a balagan which begs for deep, serious and introspective thought across an array of interwoven issues. The far-left is guilty of this plenty—but who will reach through to them? The ZOA?

The fear is that our words as Jewish critics lend credibility to the denunciations of non-Jews. To start, this only makes sense if one assumes the discussion is more harmful than the actions which raised the debate. Issues like house demolitions, administrative detentions, the route of the security barrier, IDF human rights abuses, collective punishment and ultimately of the occupation itself are far greater harms to Israel’s public image and her case in the world court of opinion than our rehashing thereof. For sure, words can help or harm Israel’s case. I, however, firmly believe that Jews publicly handling such issues and denouncing that which needs to be denounced saves us from the accusation that we are heartless, cruel or racist.

Secondly, the work of Breaking the Silence, the UPZ and a host of new progressive institutions created since the first Intifada are doing the necessary job of “complicating” matters in the minds of Jews and non-Jews alike so that substantive discussions can be had. On both the right and the left, simplistic reductions are made useful at rallies but are useless at solving anything. And as uncomfortable as it might be to deal with issues under the watchful eye of the world public, public accountability has the effect of pushing us to address issues we would otherwise let be. I accept this urgency because in today’s Middle East, with combatants’ and civilians’ lives on the line daily, lethargy is not acceptable.

A final factor which elevates censorship to a level of absurdity is the heavy Israel criticism which is already common fare on any Israeli newspaper’s online edition. Shall we seek to shut down the web sites of Haaretz, Maariv, and Yedioth Achranot? Few publications are so predictably critical of Israeli choices as these. And their online readership now counts millions—in English, available for all the world to read.

But despite these principled reasons, the censors have already lost. On its face, a private, internal dialogue within one people is a fantasy in an era of YouTube, personal blogs, email forwards, and online newspapers. MuzzleWatch.com, Jewschool.com and other collections of progressive thinkers have a bone to pick with the conventional wisdom and no one can convince them to censor. It’s simply not possible for internal debates to be, indeed, internal.

But more than that, I, as a representative of a new generation of American Jews and a revived liberal movement, refuse to play by the rules of a communal leadership which acted to save Israel’s pride first and her long-term wellbeing second.

We, as American Jewish progressives, are simply not going to heed calls to silence for Israel’s sake because silence abets only those which seek to avoid confronting the painful concessions which need to be made. If we wish for the Arab world to confront Hamas and Hezbollah, then we must necessarily be prepared to clean our own house too.

To the extent that my open dissent impacts how my Congress and my fellow Jews treat Israel, I will loudly and proudly complicate matters for the voting public of America, Jews and non-Jews alike.

About Benjamin Murane

Benjamin Murane is the co-chair of the New York City chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a contributing editor to Jewschool.com, and the former director of the Jewish Student Press Service, publisher of New Voices magazine. His blog can be read at www.judaismwithoutborders.org.
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