September 16, 2019

Enslaved by politics

One thing you learn by engaging in “dialogue” with Jews is what the essayist Joseph Epstein put this way: “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”

I discovered this truth — yet again — when I served as a guest speaker at an international Passover gathering at a beach resort south of Cancun, Mexico. On the second day of Pesach, I stood in front of a mostly Modern Orthodox crowd from 11 countries and delivered a warning: My lecture, “Seeking Truth: Journalism in the Age of Trump,” was going to be critical of the president.

Before I finished my second sentence, six people walked out.

My premise wasn’t exactly provocative. Anyone who has read a newspaper in the last six months knows that America’s press has taken a beating from Trump — both during his campaign and the first few months of his administration. What I had hoped to do, rather than provoke, was use my Passover pulpit to defend the institution of a free press as an essential feature of democracy — and establish some common ground. I didn’t think it was controversial to draw upon philosophical reinforcement from John Adams, the First Amendment and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To do this, I based my presentation strictly on facts: that is, things that have actually happened. That was my first mistake. We are now living in an “alternative fact” universe where a “fact” is a dirty, politicized word that doesn’t settle a dispute so much as provoke one. A fact used to be a thing that was “indisputably the case,” as defined in the dictionary — a common, shared language, like, “Sugar is sweet.” But now, a fact is considered subjective, open to debate.

I had hoped to have a civil discussion about how we, as a community, could respond to Trump’s effort to repress our press. Instead, what emerged during the Q-and-A after my lecture and in the days afterward was a combination of acrimony, distrust and disrespect that reveals the extent to which deep and ugly political divisions in the Jewish community are tearing us apart.

Here is some of what I heard: My talk was “offensive”; I have “garbage” in my head; I “don’t know facts or history”; political correctness is “fake news”; the media “lost credibility a long time ago,” “doesn’t report accurately,” is “biased against Israel,” “never questioned” Barack Obama; and – my personal favorite – “I wanted to walk out, but I actually came back in because I believe in discourse.”

No kidding!

The broad, sweeping generalizations were astounding. The New York Times might as well be Al Jazeera. There was no acknowledgment that American newspapers employ thousands of reporters worldwide, many of whom risk their lives to bring us information. What does it matter, if it’s information you don’t like?

During a panel I moderated on campus anti-Semitism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), I referred to the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territory — another “fact” that can’t be called a fact because it’s open for debate. A woman approached me at lunch all hot and bothered because how dare I say what I said. “The Arabs want to kill us!” “The Palestinians don’t want a state!” “They weren’t there first anyway!” And she could “prove scientifically” that God exists and the Exodus happened.

I declined the lesson in metaphysics, but when I asked her to address the disenfranchised Palestinian population in “Judea and Samaria,” she said she had no solution. She’s hoping the Messiah will come.

Me, too.

Some of these arguments seem ludicrous, but these are the kinds of statements that earn applause in certain Jewish circles.

During an evening lecture by former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has spent the last 30 years working on the Middle East conflict under four administrations, Democrat and Republican, a woman took issue with Palestinian self-determination. After going on and on, he finally stopped her. “You’re not going to convince me,” Ross said. “I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years.”

“Unsuccessfully,” she sniped.

The room was silent. But Ross, the consummate diplomat, kept his cool, letting slide a public insult that labeled his career a failure.

Some of us are so far down the rabbit hole of self-righteousness and self-rightness, we have forgotten how to be kind.

The Torah tells us that Moses, the most vaunted leader in Jewish history, was a man of deep humility, a quality our current political discourse sorely lacks. Communal certainty has replaced critical thinking. The State of Israel has become more sacred than the People of Israel.

What is under attack in our community isn’t politics, but pluralism itself. For the right, criticizing or challenging Israel is an unforgivable heresy. For the left, moral superiority has become unassailable orthodoxy. For both, the other perspective is viewed as “destroying the Jewish people.”

And guess what. It is.

Our community will be profoundly compromised if we choose ideology over one another. Communities that prize ideology over humanity are doomed to fail. We know this. We criticize Islam endlessly for the very same reason.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.