A few months ago, we remodeled our seminar center dining room with new window treatments. The place is really lovely now, and a very comfortable site for not only dinners but for meetings of all kinds. And since part of our vision is for Makom ba-Galil to be a place of meeting, where people will know they can encounter all kinds of people and all kinds of ideas, we dont charge a high rent for organizations that want to use the hall for meetings and conferences. We have had a spate of such rentals lately, including Social Workers for Peace; the local Environment Foundation; Sikkui, an organization that works for equal rights for Arabs; The Roundtable for Civic Society; Another Voice in the Galilee, a pretty far-left action group; The Fifth Matriarch, a part of the peace movement; among others.
I am pleased and proud that our center has become known as a place for the exchange of ideas; indeed, I am encouraging a local right-wing group to meet here as well, to avoid the impression of onesidedness. I would love to preside over a Hyde Park in the Galilee.
And then I got a phone call from an unidentified man, taking me to task for harboring groups that have such dangerous ideas. In particular, he was objecting to an evening sponsored by Another Voice in the Galilee, supporting the reservists who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. We both remained calm; I insisted that even unpopular views have a right to be heard; he insisted that there are some views that dont have such a right. When I held my ground, his parting shot was that he and his friends were surely going to boycott our center from now on.
Realizing that some of my neighbors might also be uncomfortable with the situation, I sent out a letter to the community informing them of our policy of imposing no ideological restrictions on the use of our building, and making clear that we in no way sponsor or support any of the views, left or right, that are expressed here. I got a lot of compliments on the letter. But the executive committee of the community also got a number of angry responses. It seems that those who are upset are concerned about two different issues:
There are those (like my anonymous caller) who feel that views that they define as anti-Zionist should not be given a platform, anywhere.
There are those who are not opposed to freedom of expression, but worry that the venue of such programs - and the publicity given to them - will associate Shorashim with views that most members of the community find objectionable; we will all be branded.
A makes me angry. It fits with one of the aspects of Israeli culture that I find most depressing: the assumption that if you can shut your opponent up, or out-shout him, then somehow you have won. If I refuse to listen to your ideas, then they dont exist and therefore dont require me to think about them, so they dont threaten me. This finds its most distinctive expression in the shameful culture of discourse in the Knesset, where our elected representatives heckle and scream, trying to prevent each other from being heard. And if that fails, you can always try an ethnic slur. Trying to conduct an orderly discussion with just about any group, teens or adults, can be a most frustrating exercise. I dont know where this comes from, culturally or anthropologically, but I sure wish it would go away, as it not only affects the quality of life, but undermines democratic decision-making.
B requires, it seems to me, careful consideration. I remember the dilemmas that used to confront me as a principal, regarding controversial speakers in the school: yes at an assembly; no at graduation... It seems to me that we do have to respond to the sensitivities of people who live in a small community that serves as the address for programs for the larger public, and to find ways to let the public know that the community itself is not associated with any particular view that happens to be expressed within its gates.
There is a fine line here, and it will be difficult to walk it. Meanwhile, I have requested that before the executive board takes any action on any complaints, the matter be brought to the general assembly of the community. Stay tuned.