Are These The Voices We Want to Silence?

Young leaders report quietly that any conversation or public statement they make that is not emphasizing how Israel is the best in the world is considered by many influentials in their community and nationally to be anti-Israel.

By Charlene Seidle

One of the most evocative teachings in Pirkei Avot lays a framework for divergence of opinion. “Any dispute for the sake of heaven will have enduring value, but any dispute not for the sake of heaven will not have enduring value,” our Sages said. Our task is to determine what falls into what category. This can be ambiguous, but we are further taught to look at the Biblical example of Korach and the Talmudic example of Hillel and Shamai as models. Korach and his followers sought glory and power whereas Hillel and Shamai argued to attain ultimate truth.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on a remarkable experience that seems to be an example of how we as a people are currently handling divergence of opinion. I am not much of a political person nor do I post much on social media. I do care deeply and profoundly about Israel, and as an expression of that care, I have posted quite a bit in the last couple weeks advocating for accepting the Iran deal, lining up with much of Israel’s security establishment but not Israel’s government.

Frankly, my views on the Iran deal are beside the point. What has been extraordinary are the many texts, Facebook messages and emails I’ve received from mostly – but not all – young Jewish community professional leaders, both in my local community and heading national organizations, who agree in whole or in part with the views I am espousing but are too worried or cautious to themselves speak publicly because they fear retribution from their funders.

And it’s not just the Iran deal. I’ve been told by these professionals that they won’t speak publicly about Israel at all so as not to stir any pots. So they just don’t mention Israel. At all. As if it doesn’t exist.

How ironic. The very leaders we’ve spent time and resources developing are now in fear of leading.

My very informal, anecdotal findings correlate with a study that was released in 2013 by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The study found that about one-third of rabbis said they had repressed their true views about Israel out of concern that they would suffer repercussions from funders and community members because of potential divergence of opinion. While those who were more liberal expressed more concerns, there was also a significant percentage of colleagues on the right who expressed fears. Younger rabbis were also far more likely to express fear and concern. So they too just don’t talk about Israel. At all. As if it doesn’t exist.

Is this the outcome we are seeking? Of course not. Does this live up to our culture and our heritage of attaining better perspective through disagreement for the sake of heaven? On the contrary, silence flies in the face of our tradition. Are these voices of young leaders in our Jewish community really the voices we want to shun at a time when we are all wringing our hands, bemoaning apathy, lack of attachment and disconnectedness among young Jews?

As a lifelong and passionate supporter of Israel, I can understand the concerns about adding our loving voices of criticism to an already loud global choir. But the pendulum has swung too far the other way to the potential extreme detriment of our people. Young leaders report quietly that any conversation or public statement they make that is not emphasizing how Israel is the best in the world is considered by many influentials in their community and nationally to be anti-Israel. This approach does not seem to be the best fit for a generation in which transparency and instant communication and analysis are highly valued. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the best fit for a people whose sacred texts are essentially archives of disagreement and debate. Moreover, it prevents these same leaders from doing anything interesting or different that could actually engage people with Israel for fear that it will be considered “anti.”

I would argue that apathy is, in actuality, our worst enemy, far more of a threat than J Street, ZOA or any other organization on the “wrong” side of the political spectrum. When leaders of organizations serving young Jews won’t talk about Israel, when they are so afraid to talk about Israel that they pretend as if it just doesn’t exist, aren’t we ourselves, unintentionally – in fact, probably with the best of intentions – effectively advancing the most profound and existential threat to the State of Israel and to our viability as a people?

Going back to our Jewish texts, we are further advised that directly engaging with the deepest and most perplexing societal issues is mandatory, not optional. This world is complex; we face intractable problems and deep dilemmas. In the Torah, Jacob’s nighttime wrestling match with the angel is held up as an example. It is only by wrestling and engaging, we learn, that we can truly earn the hallowed title of “Israel” and live up to the Divine image in which we are created. We are not a culture or a people who is afraid of ideas and dissent; on the contrary, we embrace and we nurture difference of opinion.

If the next generation of Jews does not wrestle with Israel, and simply puts our beloved Jewish state out of mind and heart, Israel is bound to be a memory, a generations-longed-for experiment killed by indifference. That prospect is scarier than any bomb from Iran or anywhere else.

This may be one of the biggest tests to our culture of disagreement for the sake of heaven that we will ever face. We may hear things we don’t like and certainly that don’t align with our views. But I would put forth that, in this day and age, in this world, ALL wrestlers are coming to the table for the sake of heaven. Anyone willing to engage, to express their perspective about Israel, its successes and its failings, they are arguing for the sake of heaven, for the sake of attaining truth and not power. And none more so than the young leaders among us.

I would challenge funders to consider taking a pledge. As a professional working for a funder, I’ll stand up right alongside you. Let’s agree that we will not penalize or threaten grantee organizations if we do not agree with the perspectives and positions of their leadership when it comes to Israel – as long as they are engaging thoughtfully with Israel. We can help quell the fears expressed by Jewish community leaders and rabbis, especially the young among us, and acknowledge that we are all approaching the dilemma and the disputes “for the sake of Heaven.” We can encourage them to speak out without fear of reprisal and set an example of respectful wrestling.

What a sacred privilege we have, also generations-longed-for! We have the opportunity to witness the building of a democracy in our times with all the warts, grit and challenges that come with it. Let’s be honest about those challenges; empower multiple voices and perspectives; talk, debate and discuss a lot; and help create the “light unto the nations” we strive to be.

Let’s not silence the very voices that may lead us to clarity and finally to Truth.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness,
it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Elie Wiesel

Charlene Seidle is Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation which ignites and inspires vibrant Jewish life, advances self-sufficiency and stimulates social entrepreneurship in coastal North San Diego County and Jerusalem.