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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Truth in Labeling

Galilee Diary #538, June 15, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

Who is the mightiest of the mighty? ...He who turns his enemy into a friend.
         -Avot D'Rabbi Natan, version A, chap. 23

Death to the extremists!
         -popular Israeli bumper sticker

When I was living in Haifa in 1962, a main thoroughfare running down past the Bahai gardens was UN Boulevard. When I came back in 1982 I couldn't find it: After the "Zionism is racism" resolution of the UN in 1975, the name of the street was changed to Zionism Blvd. We were of course appalled by the use of the term racism to apply to the people who perceived themselves as the ultimate victims of racism. However, the facile use of charged terms like racism, apartheid, fascism, and colonialism - and betrayal, anti-Zionism, post-Zionism, anti-Semitism, self-hating - has since become so common that these heavy words have lost a lot of weight. Nevertheless, they still retain enough meaning to have the impact of ending any possibility of dialogue. They essentially are a form of violence, aimed at throwing their object out of the room, silencing his/her voice (and indeed, that was the intention of that UN resolution).

For example, the other day there was a small demonstration of left-wing intellectual types in Tel Aviv, reaffirming the idea of "two states for two peoples," and calling for support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This is obviously a concept that is open to debate as to its desirability and feasibility, and it is important that the debate be vigorous. However, the counter-demonstrators who heckled the speakers, calling them "traitors," were not interested in debate - quite the opposite.

Similarly, here in the Galilee, the controversy over the right of communities to select members has often also been framed in terms that shut down the possibility of listening to the other side. I suspect that some of my fellow Galileans are indeed racists, and that there are people who would find a whiff of racism in my own choices and beliefs (for example, I live in a gated community in which everyone is Jewish); however, it is not useful - or accurate - to assume that anyone who believes in the right of small communities to screen members is ipso facto a racist. The response of those who support this right is to label the opposition as anti-Zionists, which seems to me equally inaccurate and unhelpful. There are interesting and important issues to be considered in this debate: the right to live wherever you want vs. the right to live with whomever you want; the right of a community to maintain its culture vs. the right of the individual to self-expression; the wisdom of a melting-pot approach to cultural integration; the legal definition of a community; etc. But the minute the various positions have been pigeonholed with labels that carry a message of extreme moral rejection, the discussion is over. If you are a fascist, then I have nothing to say to you, and certainly no interest in hearing what you have to say. And if I call you a fascist, you are certainly not going to listen to anything I have to say. Which of course makes life a lot easier, because we don't have to listen to positions that make us uncomfortable, and we can take comfort in knowing that we have the moral high ground, standard-bearers of righteousness in a wicked world.

The use of these words and related symbols (e.g., the opposition to the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 wore orange magen david [Jewish star] badges, implying an association of the government with the Nazis) is common in Israeli public discourse, even by people who ought to know better. It is, admittedly, very tempting. But like many other temptations, it is really not good for us.

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