For the past eight summers, I have been privileged to teach at Brandeis University’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies, working with college faculty members planning to introduce courses on Modern Israel at their respective campuses. Invariably, at my session on Israel’s relationship to world Jewry, the question arises why American Jewish organizational leadership appears to march in lockstep with Israeli governmental policy.
This observation, critiqued sharply by Peter Beinart in a widely cited essay last year, resonates particularly among some younger American Jews. Some weeks back I participated in “The Conversation,” a remarkable set of dialogues convened by The Jewish Week. At the final session, several younger Jewish activists charged that the Jewish community was run by highly educated, middle-aged, white Jewish males, who parrot the pro-Israel line and in turn are well compensated for doing so. By contrast, younger persons who wish to dissent feel intimidated by this Jewish “meritocracy.”
To be sure, I confessed some puzzlement at these charges. Over three decades at the American Jewish Committee, a centerpiece of the American Jewish establishment, I often have found myself in a distinct minority among staff colleagues on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. Conversely, both at The Jewish Week “Conversation” and at AJC, I frequently agreed with junior colleagues and disagreed with more senior ones. The reverse, of course, has also been true. To suggest that a generation gap stifles dissent is to both over-generalize about opinion within generations and to unfairly characterize the nature of cross-generational dialogue.
In fact, with respect to Israel, the case for diaspora dissent is quite compelling. The right to dissent emanates naturally from our concept of Jewish peoplehood. If we believe in Israel as a state of the Jewish people, we ought to encourage greater involvement by world Jewry in Israeli affairs. Especially at a time when we are concerned about “distancing” from Israel, expressions of dissent may well enhance Israel-diaspora ties. Some of Israel’s most vocal critics are to be found among the ranks of card-carrying Zionists. Paradoxically, this includes both those who oppose construction of settlements and advocate withdrawal to the 1967 lines, and those who dissent from Israeli governmental policy favoring a two-state solution on the grounds that surrender of any portion of Jewish historical homeland constitutes political folly or theological sin. Both groupings share an intense commitment to, rather than detachment from, the Jewish state.
The critical test, then, is not the right to dissent, but rather the wisdom of specific dissent. Peoplehood implies both membership in the Jewish enterprise and the responsibility to act in ways that advance the collective interests of the Jewish people. The latter question of political wisdom transcends the rights of individuals to dissent and, in effect, challenges them to consider whether such dissent is not only intellectually compelling but also politically advisable.
In this context, those who dissent need to weigh the distinctive role of American Jewry as an organized polity. Since 1948, American Jewry’s core message has been advocacy of American support for Israel as a fellow democracy and strategic ally. The objective of American Jewish pro-Israel advocacy, therefore, for decades has been to minimize the distance in policy between Washington and Jerusalem. Through its presence and influence in Washington, American Jewry has played a unique role in strengthening the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel — a relationship that has been sustained through both Democratic and Republican administrations, and whether the government in Jerusalem has been led by Labor, Likud or Kadima. Public criticism of Israeli policy, expressed before influential political bodies, e.g., the U.S. Congress, may weaken Jewish influence and undermine the special U.S.-Israel relationship that has been so crucial to Israel’s security and survival. For leaders of Jewish institutions, the question is often not what one makes of a particular Israeli policy so much as what is the wisest political stance to adopt in the complex context of U.S.-Israel relations.
Moreover, American Jews must recognize that they are not Israelis. Security questions affect the lives of Israelis, not American Jews. By contrast, however, issues internal to the Jewish people possess only marginal implications for Israeli security but affect enormously the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and the depth of pro-Israel support within the American Jewish polity. Questions of personal status — who is a Jew, conversion to Judaism, etc. — possess no geographical borders, and diaspora Jewish voices are both critical and necessary to that debate.
For these reasons, diaspora dissent is healthy but must be expressed wisely. Those who dissent should expect vigorous debate and counter argument, which in fact testifies to how seriously the dissent is considered. A community that is able both to include dissenting opinion within it and engage in civil disagreement signals the hallmarks of political maturity and passionate concern for its collective welfare. An American-Jewish community that both allows room for dissent and debate and maintains its role as key sustaining factor in the special relationship between America and Israel will give real meaning to the oft-beleaguered concept of Jewish peoplehood.
Last, the cause of Jewish unity should not be translated as conformity of opinion. Recently we read the Torah portion of the Tower of Babel. A 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin (the Netziv), noted that the failure of this generation consisted in its “unified opinion” (Genesis 11:1). Such conformity of thought both inhibits creative energies and can manifest itself as political tyranny. Democracies protect the right of dissent as a corrective to and check upon prevailing conventional wisdom. Similarly, the Talmud goes to great lengths to preserve and report minority opinion but also spares no efforts to rebut such opinion when deemed deficient in wisdom. Put another way, dissent is legitimate but requires good “sechel” and common sense.
Steven Bayme serves as director of the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations at the American Jewish Committee.