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The Debate Debate

As America’s generals scramble to regroup for a battle more bloody than any envisioned and Republicans in Washington agonize over what went wrong and why, the American public is descending into a more basic and ugly debate over the very legitimacy of debating.

The signs are everywhere. In New Mexico, four schoolteachers have been suspended so far for letting their students post art and essays on the war — for and against — on classroom bulletin boards. In upstate New York, an attorney was arrested for trespassing at a shopping mall last month after guards told him to take off an antiwar T-shirt and he refused. In Washington, the secretary of defense must restrain the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from threatening critics of his strategy.

The latest sign comes from within the Jewish community, where the debate was expected to stay low-profile but has not remained so. Advocates of American military action have not been shy in speaking out, nor in drawing direct lines between the American and Israeli wars against terrorism, despite the warnings of some Israeli and Jewish communal leaders that such outspokenness could fuel antisemitic conspiracy theories. Civil libertarians will insist there’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind. After all, freedom is what this war is all about.

But freedom should cut both ways.

Now comes Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, to yank the debate unwittingly in the opposite direction. In a speech to students and faculty on the eve of the war, Schorsch argued eloquently that the impending American campaign was misdirected and likely to backfire. The speech was sent out via e-mail to the media. Four days later it was withdrawn, in an enigmatic note from the seminary’s press department. Schorsch later told The New York Times he believed it was inappropriate to question the president’s leadership once the war had started.

There’s speculation — denied by seminary officials — that something else was afoot: fear of retribution by donors who might be angered by criticism of the president. The fear would not be misplaced; critics of the war are indeed under pressure. From the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the White House press secretary to school administrators in New Mexico and shopping mall guards in Albany, the president’s defenders seem all too unwilling to tolerate other views. Let’s say it again: Debate is not unpatriotic.

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