Judaism’s most fundamental struggles have always been about process. Whereas our brethren of other faiths traditionally picked narrower battles—arguing, say, over whether baptism ought to be performed shortly after birth or only once one professes his or her faith in Christ—we Jews quibbled not about religion’s whats but about its hows. How does one properly worship God—emotionally and enthusiastically like the Hasidim, or cerebrally and stringently like the Mitnagdim? How does one yearn for the Promised Land—passively and reverentially like the Haredim, or in deed like the Zionists? Every few generations, a great procedural question arises to help us sharpen our view of the ancient creed. A great new such question is upon us now, the question of the limits and purpose of debate.
It may sound like an abstraction, but it’s far from it. Consider the following example: I am a co-host of Unorthodox, a newish and irreverent podcast from this here magazine, and our guest the other week was Rebecca Vilkomerson, who heads an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace. Both JVP and Vilkomerson are ardent supporters of the BDS movement, which I, like many—arguably, most—Jews, see as inherently anti-Semitic. Singling out the Jewish state alone for opprobrium can hardly be explained by anything save for sheer, blind prejudice; the same is true for the call, central to the BDS movement’s and Vilkomerson’s beliefs alike, for the dissolution of the Jewish state and its replacement with a binational republic. But here was Ms. Vilkomerson, expecting to be treated with civility, and here was I, completely at a loss. It wasn’t that I disagreed with my guest. It wasn’t even that I found her views odious. The differences between us were more profound than mere differences in taste. One of us believed that Jews, like all the world’s nations, had the right to self-determination and a sovereign state; the other did not. How, I thought as I stared at my microphone, do you debate with someone who denies you this most basic right? You don’t. I rarely shy away from confrontation, but with Ms. Vilkomerson earnestly advocating that Jews would only be safe and good once they abandon their independence and entrust their well-being to the very same people who, historically, had slain their ancestors at every turn, I went silent. There was no point in talking anymore.
The same drama, more or less, is at the core of the recent controversy surrounding the Open Hillel movement. Earlier this month, a long list of scholars—including some of my dearest friends and many others I greatly admire and respect—signed up to join Open Hillel’s academic advisory board, supporting the nascent organization’s commitment to allowing even Israel’s fiercest critics to speak in front of Jewish groups on campus, something that Hillel itself opposes. Too often, this debate between Hillels, open and otherwise, is portrayed as a referendum on free speech and tolerance, with the parent organization accused of blocking out difficult and unpalatable opinions rather than having the courage to listen, reason, and discuss. The truth, however, is grimmer and more difficult to resolve. Hillel’s refusal to allow BDS activists to address its members isn’t an act of censorship—one, after all, hardly lacks safe spaces for Israeli-hating on college campuses these days—but the rational, even obvious, course of action. Just as you wouldn’t expect a gay student group to invite a practitioner of gay conversion therapy to give a talk, say, or a black student group to welcome a white supremacist arguing for the reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, so you shouldn’t be surprised when a Jewish student group refuses to let in those who ignore all of the world’s evils and all of Israel’s virtues to insist that Palestinian nationalism be lauded while its Jewish counterpart be banned.
Why, then, do so many smart, sensible people solidly support Open Hillel? Maybe because sensible and smart folks have a very hard time dealing in absolutes. To declare that something is irredeemably evil and something else good is a failure not only of the imagination but also of the moral instinct, which, like every good compass, is only worth a damn if it is able to capture the tiniest shifts in direction. All this is true until, sadly, it is not: There are some moments, rare and arduous, in which our survival depends on our ability to clearly tell black from white. These moments offer little nuance, a dearth of depth, none of the pleasures a well-trained mind expects when it inspects the folds of a complex situation. These moments don’t call for disquisitions; they demand action, a decisive move that defines us against those who wish us real ill. This is why we oughtn’t indulge supporters of the BDS movement in dialogue but fight them with any means at our disposal.
Such pugilistic language is what our harsh moment calls for. The efforts to vilify Israel everywhere from European parliaments to American academic associations are tantamount to war by other means, a refusal to accept not only the legitimacy of the Jewish state but also of any Jew’s right to support it, making the boundaries between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism too blurry to take seriously anymore. Against such hatred, a civil exchange of ideas is not only futile but reprehensible, as it holds the aggressor and the victim both as having a legitimate and equally valid point of view.
Which is not, of course, to say that all debate is useless: Among those of us who remain committed to the wild idea that Jews should enjoy the same rights as everybody else, many legitimate disagreements can and do bloom, about everything from Israeli policy to American politics and beyond. But as we choose whether or not to engage in discussion, we should remember that unhurried, mutually respectful conversation is a luxury, possible only on those uncommon occasions when two adults who share some grand if ephemeral vision of the future are ready to work out their differences and renew their commitments. On all other occasions, it’s time to stop talking and let common sense, vigilance, and pride fulfill their sacred duties.
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