Eric Fingerhut wrote a story for JTA today about the controversies swirling around J Street’s decision to cancel a performance by Josh Healy, a Jewish poet and performance artist, because of his likening of Palestinian suffering to the Holocaust. In the course of the article, Fingerhut writes this:
Another a [sic] session, which is not officially part of the conference but to which J Street is giving hotel space during the event, will include writers who have harshly criticized Israel and questioned its right to exist as a Jewish state. It is sponsored by blogger Richard Silverstein; J Street officials said they have nothing to do with the program.
Unfortunately, Fingerhut did not call me or even e mail to verify the statements with which he described our session. That actually would’ve been fair. Apparently, that’s not a value Fingerhut or JTA observes when it comes to Jews like us. If he had contacted me I would have told him that the luncheon meeting was devised by me and Jerry Haber of Magnes Zionist. While I cannot speak for every member of our panel, I know that I make very clear that I criticize Israel POLICY and not Israel itself. This is an important distinction which the Jewish right (within which I include Fingerhut) conveniently omits. As for the claim about questioning Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state–yes, there are such panel members. We have a Gazan blogger who likely doesn’t feel much sympathy for this concept. I imagine from what I know of Phil Weiss’ views, he’s quite ambivalent on this issue. Helena Cobban likely feels the same.
But let me tell Eric Fingerhut a thing or two about what this panel is meant (and not meant) to do: it is NOT meant to be carefully circumscribed as much of the political discourse on Israel within the organized Jewish community is. I don’t want to talk only to bloggers who follow a party line or who make Eric Fingerhut comfortable. I want to talk to a Gazan blogger. And davka, I want to do it during a J Street conference to give other conference guests a chance to get outside their Jewish comfort zone and hear how the other side sees things.
Will I agree with everything Laila El-Haddad says? Probably not. Will she agree with everything I say? I doubt it. But I’d rather be sitting and talking to her and 11 other provocative I-P bloggers than to Ami Eden or Eric Fingerhut or Jeffrey Goldberg. I’ll learn more from these panelists than I would from the latter three any day.
While I am a progressive Zionist, I don’t want to talk only to Zionists about critical issues facing Israel and the Jewish people. I often disagree with Phil Weiss, who does not consider himself a Zionist. I even disagree quite often with Dan Sieradski, who is a Zionist. But I refuse to put Phil Weiss in herem because he has a different view than I do on these issues. Phil Weiss deserves to be heard within the Jewish community as much as I or even Eric Fingerhut does. His views on some issues may not be at the heart of the current consensus among American Jews, but many ideas which later became commonly accepted started out at the fringes of social discourse. If we’d excommunicated Galileo and Spinoza and “disappeared” their ideas, where would intellectual thought be today?
Similarly, my friend Zvi Solow, professor at Ben Gurion University, reminds me that the political slogan shtey medinot l’shney amim (“two states for two peoples”) was first coined by Rakah, the Israeli Communist party, in the 1970s. At the time, this concept was considered politically outlandish by most Israelis. Now, even Bibi Netanyhau claims to believe in it. Does that make him an Israeli Communist? In 1972, I attended a political rally in Jerusalem advocating Israeli negotations with the PLO (which was a criminal offense). I was stoned by right-wing demonstrators. Isn’t it funny how what is treasonous in one era becomes commonplace in another. Eric Fingerhut should remember that.
JTA is part of corporate American Jewry. They would like to tell us what we can and can’t discuss within the community. But I reject this notion. They are not going to tell me who is kosher for this panel or what subjects are treif. The very reason I blog is to avoid this notion like the plague. So if you want a free-flowing debate about these ideas, come to the blogger panel and tell Eric Fingerhut and JTA that your ideas about Israel can’t be confined or controlled.