Bad Speech, More Speech

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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The anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation provided a fitting backdrop to one of the most encouraging developments on the world scene in recent months, the sudden re-emergence of calm in Israel and the territories. Thanks to the unexpected determination of the Palestinian Authority’s new chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, and the impressively restrained response of Ariel Sharon’s government, there is real hope for the first time in years that the tortured region can begin moving toward coexistence. With luck and determination on both sides, this summer will see the beginning of a peaceful handover of land by Israel to the Palestinians, within the framework of Sharon’s disengagement plan, as a first step toward a possible peace.

Not everyone welcomes the new developments, to be sure. On both sides there are zealots who view the Holy Land as indivisible and reject the principle of two states for two peoples. They are entitled to have their say, but they should not be allowed to deter the majorities on both sides that yearn for peace and accept the price of compromise.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the debate has begun to surface among American Jews in recent months, with a passion. American Jews have deep feelings for the Jewish homeland and for the rights and wrongs of the conflict there. Anyone who cares for the vibrancy of Jewish life ought to welcome the depth of feeling shown on both sides of the debate.

Still, some worry that the debate could get too heated. Some worry that too fiery a debate will undermine the unity and effectiveness of the community’s advocacy efforts. Others fret that extremists will cross the line of civility, presumably inciting hate and even violence.

The Forward found itself in the middle of this debate last week, after we published an advertisement that criticized Israeli government policy in terms that some considered beyond the pale of civility. The ad, purchased and signed by the local president of the Washington, D.C., district of the Zionist Organization of America, took on Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan, which it likened to a long string of anti-Jewish persecutions from the Inquisition to the Nazi slaughter. The plan’s architects were called “betrayers of Israel.” Since its appearance, we’ve heard from more than a few community leaders who thought we were mistaken to accept the ad, arguing, as Abe Foxman writes on this page, that it was tantamount to “hate speech.”

Even the ZOA’s own national leadership jumped into the fray. ZOA President Morton Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors who scrupulously avoids misuse of Nazi imagery, strongly disavowed the ad and told us he had accepted the resignation of his Washington chapter president. Klein wondered why we hadn’t checked with his organization before running an ad in its name.

We don’t think we made a mistake. The ad was strongly worded, but it didn’t single out any individuals for incendiary criticism. It was signed by reputable individual, and expressed a view that is held by a passionate minority within the community, both here and in Israel. We don’t agree with the authors, and we hardly think Gaza disengagement is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, much less genocide. But we think it’s important that all views be heard, including the most passionate ones. It’s not our job to censor public opinion, but to report it and reflect it in our pages. Our hope is that an informed community will be a more active and effective community.

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