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 Dissent is not disloyalty
 Roman Bronfman, Israel
 September 5, 2002
 
The past week has witnessed two remarkable independent, yet related, events. One, in Britain, has been the controversy surrounding Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's interview in this paper. The second, in Israel, has been the controversial address to a closed forum of the country's leading rabbis by the new chief of staff of the Israel Defence Force, Moshe Ya'alon. The latter saw Israel's top soldier describe the Palestinian threat as a "cancer". Those rabbis present apparently saw little wrong with the chief of staff's disturbing metaphor and its potentially dire implications, which underscores the salience, timeliness and bravery of Rabbi Sacks's comments.

Sacks's critics have argued that the rabbi's vanity and personal interests were placed ahead of his community and Israel. They also take issue with the fact that the interview was in the Guardian, which they claim is an anti-Israeli and even anti-semitic newspaper. Rabbi Sacks is no doubt under pressure from Jerusalem to distance himself from his comments. But neither the cheap shots fired by his detractors, nor a retraction, will efface the important moral issues he raised.

The real question the Sacks incident poses is the limit of the Jewish diaspora's support for Israel. At what point is the diaspora entitled to speak out? At present, diaspora leaders seek to impose a form of iron "message discipline" that tolerates no dissent. This borders on blind loyalty.

Traditionally, it has been argued that those Jews who do not live in Israel have no right to criticise the country and its elected government. This is a facile claim. By the same logic, those who do not live here have no right to support us. Moreover, what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly spills over into the diaspora.

Whether diaspora Jews like it or not, and whether Israel intends it or not, what happens here adversely affects the lives of Jews all over the world. Hence, responsible diaspora Jewish leaders have a right and an obligation to address the issue. But more important for me, as a patriotic and concerned Israeli, is the belief that Jews and Israel's loyal friends abroad have an obligation to be candid with Israel and caution her when she is failing. Instead, they act as cheerleaders as the country marches towards a precipice.

I was raised in the former Soviet Union. That society was premised on a seemingly noble set of values, but evolved into a totalitarian state, intolerant of difference. The ultimate consequence of the totalitarian mindset, which viewed dissent as betrayal, was that the political leadership became detached from society. The system no longer responded to its citizens' needs and, blind to the gap between rhetoric and reality, over time it collapsed. Blind loyalty is the last thing Israel needs.

For the great danger in supporting Israel no matter what is that Jewish communities will themselves become closed-minded. Diaspora Jews such as Rabbi Sacks are being asked to choose between loyalty to the tribe and their liberal values. How can someone like Jonathan Sacks lecture on morality, in business for example, and remain silent on what is happening in Israel?

A dire consequence of the obsession with silencing those who dare to warn is that we in Israel stand to lose the benefits of the constructive criticism of some of the world's finest minds. Without such criticism we are in danger of undermining the Zionist project.

Which brings us back to the chief of staff's statements. To use the word "cancer" will be interpreted by some in Israel as legitimation for the transfer or severe repression of Palestinians. In the former Yugoslavia, the unfortunate use of metaphors such as this led to terrible acts of violence in the context of an ethno-national war.

At what point, after what act (God forbid), will our diaspora brethren agree to warn us of the folly of our actions? In the past month alone two score innocent civilians have been killed in Israeli army assassinations. Is such "collateral damage" acceptable to diaspora Jews? Is it consonant with Jewish morality?

Young secular Israelis are increasingly alienated from the religious establishment. One of the many reasons is that official Judaism seems to have little to say about the pressing dilemmas that we in Israel face today. With the notable exception of Rabbis for Human Rights, very few have dared to provide moral guidance over the past two years. Instead, too many Israeli rabbis have let their voices add to a climate of hostility toward peace-making: witness the recent call by one rabbi for Israel's conscientious objectors to be court martialled and hanged.

As an Israeli politician who represents a secular constituency, I found Rabbi Sacks's comments inspiring. At long last a rabbi has dared to speak up about what is happening to my society. Ultimately, his interview will be more helpful to Israel than blind support for its actions.

Roman Bronfman is head of the Democratic Choice opposition party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

From The Guardian, September 5, 2002.