Civil dissent: a Jewish value
Last week, I participated in a survey on Canadian Jews done by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with Prof. Robert Brym of the University of Toronto and Prof. Rhonda Lenton of York University. It’s considered a “landmark national survey of Jews in Canada in 2018.”
The phone call came at 5 p.m. This time coincides with making dinner, school lunches for my kids, feeding our dogs, and keeping the twins and dogs from roughhousing too much in the meanwhile. (Did I mention my biologist husband was away, doing field work?)
However, I knew this was important. This was a situation where my opinions and experiences mattered. I needed to contribute despite being the only adult present to address the chaos at my house.
Often, we think of politics, religion and money as things to avoid. They’re too emotionally laden to make good dinner conversation. Still, we need to talk and think about this to figure out where we stand. If one looks only at the Torah portion of the week, you might see it as black and white pronouncements about how one should behave or observe the commandments. Yet Oral Law is also part of Judaism. We care what the rabbis thought and discussed. Over thousands of years, our ideas developed, changed and grew. Those talmudic discussions include majority and minority opinions, as well as stories and sayings.
In our tradition, subtle differences matter. Opinions matter. According to the joke, if you ask two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.
That’s why I was stunned by the reaction to actress Natalie Portman’s choice to decline the Genesis Prize. In her statement, she lovingly celebrated her Israeli identity, her friends and family and her citizenship. She also explained that she felt uncomfortable with the current government, specifically, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s choices, and its “violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power.”
A torrent of media and political reaction followed, some of it hysterical in tone. The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Mort Klein, was downright misogynistic. He called the Harvard-educated actor and director “beautiful, but not too bright.”
Portman carries two passports as a dual American-Israeli citizen. Some called for her to be stripped of her Israeli citizenship. Since when is it OK to tell someone they can no longer be a citizen of a democratic country because she spoke out on political issues that concern her?
I’m a dual American-Canadian citizen. If I speak out on a political issue, I am within my rights as a citizen of (either) democratic society. I hear comments on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government or U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets wherever I go. All that said, some of those survey questions made me realize – I no longer feel comfortable publicly writing about or speaking either in support of Israel or criticizing Israel’s policies. Why?
All subtlety has dropped out of the conversation.
Old guard, right-wing Zionists who say “I stand with Israel” bristle whenever anyone says something critical of the current Israeli government’s policies. Meanwhile, anyone with liberal or left-wing politics feels uncomfortable with the notion that Israel would deport asylum-seekers, never mind the current violence with Palestinians or the reactions to their using the word “occupied.”
Many have given up even trying to discuss the issues. They don’t want to be attacked. Getting vitriolic responses from friends, acquaintances and family members, or a stream of emails about those “antisemites,” or worse, seems par for the course now.
A New York magazine article online, “Natalie Portman and the crisis of liberal Zionism,” helps explain the dilemma. Many younger North American Jews embrace liberal North American politics about equality and human rights, and feel disconnected from Israel. The old notion of a liberal Zionist or progressive supporter is no longer courted by Israel, either. The support of Christian evangelicals and a growing block of Orthodox, conservative voters might mean that some in Israel believe they no longer need the support of those liberal Zionists of old.
You may wonder why my columns don’t discuss Israel much. I’d respond with what Israelis told me as a teenager, living on an Israeli kibbutz. “If you want to weigh in on Israeli politics? Move to Israel and vote. Otherwise? We’ve heard enough from you North Americans.”
I tend my garden, as Voltaire says – I write about Judaism, religion, family and about where we stand as Canadian Jews. Our religion teaches us to learn, analyze and form opinions, like the rabbis do. As a citizen of both the United States and Canada, I defend wholeheartedly Portman’s right to speak out on politics and human rights issues that matter to her. It’s an essential part of free speech and the democratic ideal. One has to wonder whether the virulent reaction to her statement says more about Portman, or about the people who have responded so negatively.
In a democracy, we should be able to express well-considered opinions and disagree about things in a civil way, without fear of threats. Why would anyone consider it acceptable (Jewish) behaviour to threaten, embarrass or demean someone else? Many rabbis taught us: threats, embarrassment or denigrating others are just not Jewish things to do.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.