If one was to ask a non Jewish lay-man to name things Jews were particularly good at, talking would be high on the list. We are a people of words, we are novelists, poets, intellectuals, comics. We cut our teeth writing and studying Talmud, where words took the place of land, where divine commands are overruled by the arguments of the majority, where the meaning(s) of words is debated to a hairsplitting degree. The understanding of Torah words and phrases is frequently defined less by any essential meaning and more by the ingenuity of the interpreter. The community of Jews uses words, text, as a forum, a meeting place where views and ideologies can do battle without blood being spilt.
This idea was developed by German Jewish philosophers in the twentieth century, particularly Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, into a philosophy of dialogue. To simplify grossly, their approach is to build a picture of our differing relationships with the other(s)-our interhuman dialogues mirror dialogue with the divine, the ultimate other. In Levinas’ reading of Rosenzweig, we only understand God through ethical behaviour towards another person (“all the rest is a dream”). Arguably these philosophers are continuing a longstanding Jewish tradition, an updated version of a chevruta (a study pair, sometimes seen in the tradition as being like lovers), creating a beit-midrash for modernity (Rosenzweig’s Lerhaus) where we can find each other, and ourselves, through study, discussion, and most of all words. These philosophers seem to recognize that if conflicts of the flesh are to be avoided, people of different views must hammer out their differences through words; we must not be afraid to talk.
It is ironic then, that despite this tradition, the mainstream Jewish community of today does everything in its power to avoid talking. One of the primary activities of contemporary Jews has been to attempt to silence debate, to close off discussion, to refuse dialogue. The first means of doing this has been the no-platform policy. While not unique to Jews, it has become one of our favourite tools. Originating in attempts to deny a platform to holocaust deniers (understandable but misguided), it developed in moves to ban speakers identified as critical of Israel or anti-Zionist (totally indefensible). In the case of holocaust denial, this tactic may be critiqued purely on grounds of pragmatism; when banned, such views can claim to be oppressed minorities, speaking the unpalatable truth , whereas when they are freely heard, they can be engaged and defeated in open debate. The example of David Irving is compelling; when allowed to speak freely, he was revealed as a liar and a racist. His reputation was destroyed by means of discussion and evidence. Now, since being imprisoned in Austria, he has been able to pose as a political prisoner, arrested for being supposedly too dangerous to the powers that be. With relation to ‘anti-Israel’ speakers (this phrase, like ‘the war on terror’ should always appear in quotation marks), there are no honourable intentions. The case is simply that supporters of /apologists for Israel know that they cannot win through open debate because all the evidence is against them. Instead they aim to silence their opponents.
Crying ‘antisemitism’ is frequently another form of refusing to talk. It rarely takes long for any position at odds with Jewish communal interests to be dubbed antisemtic, and the ludicrous linkage of antizionism to antisemitism is a convenient, catch-all way of doing this.
To be sure there is genuine anti-semitism out there – the rise in synagogue desecrations and attacks on Jews in the UK is evidence of this. The focus on these events, however is weakened by crying wolf on antizionism. If the Guardian is described as antisemitic (which it frequently is), focus on genuine racism is weakened. So the challenge to the Israel supporters is to begin talking again – justify in open debate why you are condoning the occupation of millions of Palestinians, why the creation of a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine would be an antisemitic move. If it was no longer possible to refuse certain views as ‘beyond the pale’ Zionists would start to have to make the case. Whether they could manage that under the principles of liberal democracy would be very interesting…
The time has come, therefore, to reclaim the tradition and start talking again. Truth is not found by building walls, and refusing to listen to the shouts from beyond. Critics of Israel, anti Zionist and most all of Palestinians need to be heard. Their words may also be ‘the words of the living God…’