Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”
Here are five answers.
1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.
Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.
2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.
I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.
3. Because multiple perspectives are especially important on Israel.
As Israel pundits — ranging from Ari Shavit to Benny Morris, Michael Lerner to Yoram Hazony, Peter Beinart to Avraham Burg — have all emphasized, one of the central non-military challenges of Israel/Palestine is the difficulty the two sides have in hearing one another’s narratives. I met with pro-peace Palestinians recently who simply could not believe that the Separation Wall was really meant (by some people) to be about security. For them, it is only about a land-grab. Likewise, I know many pro-Israel folks who are convinced that Arabs just hate Jews. They deny that people were displaced, and that they see themselves as victims of ethnic cleansing. Precisely in this context, “talking about Israel with people who want it to disappear” is crucial. Why do they want Israel to disappear? What can I learn from that perspective? How is my own sense of Jewishness and care for Israel impacted by it? How do I respond effectively?
4. Because generalizations are bad — as Liebovitz himself demonstrates.
Liebovitz writes, “if you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which most American Jews enthusiastically do, you’ve nothing to say to anyone in the BDS camp.” There are at least two major errors here — setting aside the ambiguity of what “enthusiastically” means. First, if you support Israel’s right to exist, that is exactly why you should be talking to a BDS supporter. Communicate to him/her your nuanced view of Israel, explain what it means to you, and listen closely in return. Again, this may or may not change anyone’s mind, but it is exactly the kind of generalization-busting conversation that pro-Israel people need to be having. Second, “anyone in the BDS camp”? Really? Has Liebovitz spent any time with the “BDS camp”? News flash: that camp is wide and broad. Some within it do, indeed, dispute the validity of a Jewish state. Others see BDS as a non-violent tactic to oppose the occupation. I think all of these people are worthy of a conversation, but at the very least, taking the trouble to talk to them would save people like Liebovitz from sounding stupid.
5. Because you have no choice.
Finally, there’s the demographic and political reality. Most American Jews are liberal. As Israel’s government becomes ever more conservative, more and more Jews — and more and more liberals — will thus move into greater conflict with Israeli policies, some even to the point of opposing the state of Israel itself. Certainly, Jewish organizations can close their eyes, cover their ears, and chant “I can’t hear you.” But if they do, they’ll only grow smaller, more pathetic and less relevant. They may be propped up, as Tablet is, by funders with a conservative ideological agenda, and so they may have edifices, fellowships, and magazines to look bigger than they are. But at least in terms of relevance, justice, and Jewish continuity, they will eventually be the ones to disappear.