Mar 23, 2014  By Russell F. Robinson  Category: Education,

Why 'limiting debate on Israel will only hurt us' is wrong

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), and author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013) is someone I deeply respect. However, his latest opinion ("Limiting Debate on Israel Will Only Hurt Us," The Jewish Week, Feb. 4), is a perspective, if acted upon, that has the potential to actually hurt our community.

In his desire to encourage more open dialogue on Israel, Rabbi Schwarz would like the college campus organization Hillel to reform its guidelines and allow overtly anti-Israel groups the opportunity to speak under the Hillel banner. Schwarz believes that preventing such contrarians to talk will actually drive young next-gen Jews away from us. 

Such a notion is not only unbelievable, it is just plain irresponsible!
While I can understand the rabbi's ongoing challenge of engaging and retaining the faithful, perhaps what we need from our spiritual leaders is a clearer understanding of identity and community to market to next-gen Jews in the era of the Internet.

One of the ideals I am most proud of as a citizen in our democracy is having the ability to freely speak on any topic, including Israel. It is in our very nature as Jews to question, discuss, debate, opine and challenge. The comedian Jackie Mason will tell you in no uncertain words that we are an opinionated people.

Yet when we talk about opening our Hillel chapters to include debate from groups extremely opposed to Israel, what sort of debate are we talking about? Should Hillel chapters be used as a forum for others to express agendas and positions that are antithetical to our basic beliefs? 

As leaders we have a moral imperative to stand by our religious tenets and customs to preserve our heritage and community, not create more avenues to splinter it.     

I was raised in a very liberal household where great emphasis was placed on progressive issues. Today, I consider the home I have made with my wife and children equally liberal and also guided by strong concern for social justice. Yet, some far reaching and impactful statements by "leaders of the left" drive me crazy. 

Hillel has been a safe haven for Jewish students on both friendly and unfriendly campuses for decades. Its core principles and mission remain the same: to be “a place that welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds and fosters an enduring commitment to a Jewish life of learning and Israel.” It is not intended to be an extension of the college where it is located as merely an organization (like so many others) that offers minority students a place to socialize and enjoy the academic experience.

Why then, should Hillel provide for speakers unsympathetic to Israel to promote the politics of destruction and tear down our next-gen Jews under the roof meant to safeguard them?  Such diatribe would not be intelligent, honest debate and only open the doors for more negative anti-Israel propaganda to be fostered. Thankfully, Hillel’s agenda is clear, and beating up Israel is not part of it.        

As a member of CLAL, Rabbi Schwartz usually brings great wisdom to American Jewry.  If he's in search of a new social experiment to promote greater interaction between the faiths, perhaps he should bring a speaker to his synagogue to preach on Christianity and Jesus Christ and open the floor to debate? To draw a good crowd I suggest he host the forum during Shabbat services. Sounds foolish and offensive, right? Of course it does. Likewise, so does the notion of a Jewish organization sponsoring anti-Israel lectures. When held successfully, inter-religious councils, be they local community-based or on college campuses, bring people together to share their commonalities, not facilitate hostility by stressing what makes them different.    

Nor should Hillel allow for "Open Hillels," as he recommends. I have witnessed time after time, speakers that condemn Israel do so without being properly vetted and fact- checked. Often listeners absorb every word as though it were based on facts when it is nothing more than biased opinion and misinformed rhetoric.  Many of the websites representing the face of such groups to the public make statements that are unfounded, unchecked, extremely prejudicial, and purely meant to mislead viewers. Quite simply, they promote an agenda of hate by craftily “wordsmithing” speeches and utilizing social media tools to cast negative stories and images of Israel and her people.

Similarly, I’m not fooled when anti-Israel groups feign concern on social justice. Where are those same groups to comment when:  
·       Israel physicians treat Syrian civil war casualties in Israeli hospitals? Is that not social justice? 
·       IsraAID helps people around the world during times of extreme crisis.  Is that not social justice? 
·       A Palestinian fish farmer brings food home to the family table because of water technology developed in Israel. Is that not social justice? 

A hallmark of democracy, free speech is a right, but it does have great personal responsibility attached to it, especially when it violates the civil and constitutional rights of others. The thought of promoting speech that would tear down rather than build up is a formula for disaster.  Instead, let’s share the wonderful experiences of our Jewish nation with our young people. Our roles as leaders are best used when we manage to create better and stronger connections to Israel, and highlight the strength of our Jewish community for today and tomorrow.

There is historical evidence that supports how championing Israel abroad has made us stronger at home. Prior to 1967, Jewish life in America was floundering.  Since then, with the revitalization of the current Zionism movement and our growing connection to and investment in Israel, we have grown JCC’s throughout the country, built new synagogues and strengthened Jewish communities throughout the United States. Rather than being excluded from formerly elitist country clubs and considered undesirable in many neighborhoods, we are now sought after to be included. Our Jewish identity and connection to our community, local synagogue and Israel is stronger today because we embraced Israel, not because we spoke out against the State.  Smart, responsible and forward thinking leadership guided that. 

Each year 50,000 students go to Israel on Birthright missions. Witness the growth of Jewish day schools and people speaking Hebrew, all happening now because we have embraced working for and with Israel as part of our unique identity. The fact that more people make Aliyah from North America in greater numbers than ever before is testament to  Israel being a desirable place to settle down. Indeed, the “megatrends for the future” are about this positive, strong connection, interwoven in our Jewish life. 

Yes, there are blemishes. We all have them. However, that is not the issue here. To promote true dialogue, let’s talk about how Israel makes the world a better place for everyone.  Let’s embrace our heritage with a sense of pride, strength and a winning attitude.  That is the megatrend for our future.