At GA, Netanyahu asks for ‘unity', but expects ‘unanimity'

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This week in New Orleans, speaking to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Binyamin Netanyahu issued a repeated and impassioned call for "Jewish unity".  But, as a key section of his address reveals, what Israel's Prime Minister was really after wasn't "unity", but "unanimity" - an undiluted chorus of hosannas in support of his government's policies.

If Netanyahu were any other Israeli leader, we might attribute his misrepresentation of the "unity" principle to linguistic insufficiency.

But in light of Mr. Netanyahu's impeccable English, his suggestion that "unity" amounts to Jews worldwide, "speak[ing] with one voice" has to be viewed as a challenge of the first order for progressive lovers of Israel who cherish democracy.

Much more in keeping with the democratic spirit of American Jewry was a "Statement on Civility" issued recently by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, on which Meretz USA's President and Executive Director appear as signatories.

The Civility statement recognizes and legitimizes the multiplicity of voices in the American Jewish community.  It rejects the call for uniformity of opinion, stressing that only through "robust and vigorous debate" between "diverse views" can "better and richer solutions" be achieved for the community as a whole.

The Statement on Civility wisely seeks to establish ground rules for debate so that Jewish communal unity can be preserved in the face of an obvious absence of Jewish communal unanimity.

Sadly, Netanyahu's GA speech was more in the spirit of the Roman Constantine's "One God, One Empire, One Emperor".  It calls to mind the Im Tirtzu movement's efforts to purge Israel's universities of any curricular materials it has deemed anti-patriotic.  And it shares much with the plan hatched by Avigdor Lieberman to cut off any state funding to Israeli artists who refuse to perform over the Green Line.

How far Netanyahu's "one voice" reverie is from reality was vividly demonstrated during the address itself, as five young members of the non-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), rose, one after another, to heckle the Prime Minister and express opposition to the loyalty oath, West Bank settlements and other government policies.

This certainly is not meant as an endorsement of the JVP.  Indeed, I find it most ironic, and even irritating, that while the organization's activists rightly observed that certain Israeli policies are contributing to the country's delegitimization, the organization has not been willing to line up squarely behind Israel's legitimate right to exist within the Green Line.

But no matter what one thinks of JVP's positions, or its slightly sophomoric tactics, their protest clearly reminds us that the Jewish community is not all cut from the same cloth. 

If Mr. Netanyahu were to grant me a five-minute audience, here's what I would ask him: Which "one voice" do you want each and every Jew worldwide to speak with?

-- The voice of Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who this week added to his sterling resume by suggesting that Israel avoid peace talks with Syria?

-- The voice of Shas party guru, rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who recently proclaimed that Conservative Jewish schools do not teach Judaism?

-- The voice of Israel's Prime Minister, who insists that his government will make the hard compromises needed for peace?

-- Or, perhaps, the Prime Minister's other voice, which, 43 years into the occupation, is still trying to sell the claim that building new homes in the West Bank is no different than building them in Beersheva or Tel Aviv?

In normal times, Netanyahu's call for "unity" could be brushed aside as hollow rhetoric, the grandstanding of a politician eager to feed platitudes to a sympathetic audience in order to generate the necessary applause lines.

But with democracy on the defensive in Israel, and with progressive American supporters of Israel still being verbally tarred as "anti-Israel", Netanyahu should have used the spotlight to highlight the value of debate, and to proudly declare his support for freedom of speech, of criticism, of the press and of academic thought and expression.

Speaking from the heartland of the United States, Netanyahu could have easily summoned the words of another chief executive, John F. Kennedy, who reminded us that, "the unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion" - that democracy draws its strength from diversity of opinion and is weakened by mandated conformity.

Or, since this was a Jewish event, Netanyahu could have sagely drawn from Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) (5:17) which teaches us that "every machloket l'shem shamayim, every argument for the sake of heaven, will in the end yield results."

In other words, as long as the debate is conducted with respect; and as long as all sides share a common concern for the welfare of the Jewish people, it is not "one voice" that Mr. Netanyahu should be encouraging, but a spirited exchange of thoughts and ideas. 

Only such an inclusive approach will achieve Jewish unity.  The expectation that all Jews should recite a litany of advocacy talking points is certain to produce the opposite result.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

November 12, 2010

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