Time for a democratic discourse

Josh Healey

Kevin Coval



This weekend, J Street, a new Jewish “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” Washington-based public action committee is holding its first national conference. The two of us, along with another artist, were scheduled to perform and read poems at several sessions during the conference. Specifically, we were invited to lead a workshop on how culture and spoken word create democratic spaces that sift through difficult issues and ensure that a multiplicity of voices are heard, and how that can be used to open up the Israel/Palestine debate. Instead, we have been censored and pushed out of that very debate.

This week, some right-wing blogs and pseudo-news organizations latched on to various lines of poems Josh wrote and churned the alarmist rumor mill saying that hateful anti-Israeli poets are keynote speakers at the J Street conference. This is not surprising. The radical right-wing, including the growing Jewish right-wing of this country and abroad, hates complex discourse, especially when it brings to light truths they seek to systematically deny. The Weekly Standard, Commentary and their AIPAC-influenced brethren have been attacking J Street for weeks, scared that the conference will bring together the majority of American Jews who do favor a more rigorous peace process. When they found Josh’s poems and took lines out of context, they had the perfect straw man: the Van Jones to J Street’s Obama. Again, this is not surprising.

What is disappointing and troubling is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say “I know what I’m doing is wrong … but there are some battles we choose not to fight,” before canceling our program and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front. Van Jones is another perfect example: after the Fox News venom became too much and the environmental advisor to Obama resigned last month, the radical right hasn’t stopped attacking Obama, or more accurately, the alternative, progressive voice they fear he represents. The right stands by its politics, and practices solidarity with their allies. Too often the left doesn’t. And that’s why we often lose — on health care, on global warming and on Israel/Palestine.

For the second time in two months Kevin, who is Jewish, has been told not to come to a Jewish conference because of what he will say about Palestine and Israel. This past August, the evening before the International Hillel Conference, conference planners said if he were to read poems about Palestine, they’d rather not have him. Now Josh, who is Jewish, has had his name thrown into a mudslide of blogs and hate emails. All this because we are practicing the Jewish maxim of the refusal to be silent in the face of oppression, anyone’s oppression.

One of the key teachings of Judaism is the insistence on wrestling with and debating ideas. There are a thousand years of codified arguing, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, over the meaning of the stories in the five books of the Torah. Jews debate everything. There is the old adage, “when you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions.” Our families cannot come to agreement about what constitutes a deli as opposed to a diner. (A deli must have pickles on the table with poppy seed rolls, etc.)

But when you try to talk about Palestine there is silence. When you talk about the role the United States plays in supporting Israel and its military coffers, there is no room for discourse. If you bring up Palestinians’ right to return to land they were forced out of, or mention that this past January more than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in Gaza, there is no room to speak in Jewish-centric spaces in this country.

There are many reasons why this trend of censorship is disturbing. We believe in democracy, in the right to speak and be heard and in the right to be disagreed with. We are disheartened and outraged by the lack of democratic discourse in the American Jewish community and within the country as a whole.

Why are we scared of what will come from an honest conversation? What do we have to lose, or discover, or admit to if we question the policies of Israel or America’s support of its government and military? It can be unsettling for one’s worldview to unravel, the intricate web of white lies and half-truths pulled apart. This can be disconcerting for generations of Jews who have accepted the propaganda of a “chosen people” and the acting out of geo-strategic nightmares via military might.

Kevin works at a Hillel for Hashem’s sake! He is charged with the task of addressing why so many young Jews are distancing themselves from the religious and cultural practice of Judaism. This is one of those reasons! American Jews are told at shul to repent for our sins, but silenced if we bring up the sins of the country that acts in our name. We need authentic, honest discourse in the American Jewish community. It must start today and it must be about Palestine and Israel.

Images courtesy the artists.

Kevin Coval and Josh Healey are Jewish writers in America and can be reached at jewsthatareleft AT gmail DOT com.