Silencing dissent doesn’t only mean directly quashing free speech. Silencing, or a chilling effect, also take place when certain forces in society dominate and monopolize the narrative, deciding what is acceptable, what is fringe and what is mainstream.
Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.
-Tony Judt, “Toni”, NYRB April 19, 2010.
This sentiment by the late historian Tony Judt articulates much of what informs my identity and my academic and journalistic pursuits. The mere fact that I quote him will already set off alarm bells, deterring those who wrote him off as anti-Israel and beyond the pale, due to his 2003 New York Review of Books article suggesting the two-state solution was dead; an argument much more ubiquitous today – and openly voiced by right-wing members of Israel’s government.
But he, Hannah Arendt, Baruch Spinoza and Yeshayahu Leibovitz are all examples of Jews in history who were ostracized for their opinions – precisely because they dared to open up sensitive topics and subsequently challenged a paradigm within the community. People accused them of inaccuracies, dismissed them, calling them bad Jews and Israel haters. I am by no means comparing myself to them but they are all significant inspirations who embody the issue of demarcating the limits of dissent in Jewish history, and whose work I go back to over and over again.
Israelis are really sensitive about having their dirty laundry aired in public. And that is exactly why it should be done. It is why I wrote what I wrote in the New York Times; the issues I raised need to be voiced and grappled with in a broader forum, and precisely because it is not something you normally see in that paper.
Pointing out worrying trends doesn’t mean Israel is China or North Korea. But that is not something to boast about. It is (still) a place where individual Jews can speak freely without being silenced – for the most part. There was the incident of high school teacher Adam Verete, who was nearly fired...Read More