An Israeli Centrist Rabbi Stands Up for Free Speech

Editor’s Note: Tikkun often tries to bring into dialogue people with different perspectives from our own in order to inform our community of those views and to learn from them what we can in order to be more effective in the struggle for a world of love and justice, peace and environmental sanity, generosity and compassion, forgiveness and connection to the God/dess of the universe through awe, wonder and radical amazement.

The article below is written by a prominent Israeli rabbi who is the director of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a person who I know personally to be of high ethical character and deep commitment to the well-being of the Jewish people. He wishes to protect the Jewish people and for that reason wants to figure out how to deal with the BDS movement by finding ways to defeat it. He never considers that the most effective way to defeat the BDS movement would be to either end the Occupation or give to all Palestinians (including those in the West Bank and Gaza) the same rights it gives to its Jewish citizens. Such a granting of rights would immediately deflate the BDS movement permanently. Without the implementation of one or the other of such actions, increasing numbers of younger Jews and many other ethically principled people around the world will, in despair at any other way to champion the rights of the Palestinian people, embrace BDS in some form. The form that seems to make most sense to many  in the Tikkun community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) is BDS of the West Bank settlers and settlements and those corporations and institutions that support the settlements–but  NOT a BDS of the entire State of Israel and all Israelis. The challenge being put to us some of our human rights-oriented allies is: what if Israel continues actions that seem to be turning an occupation into a defacto Annexation–what options do we really have, particularly if, as Doniel Hartman and many others fear, the thin layer of human rights protections that have been assaulted by the present government become scarcer and scarcer in Israel? If only those many centrists who are starting to wake up as Israeli democracy becomes thinner and more under assault were to join in dealing with the underlying problem–the need to end the Occupation or give Palestinian full equal voting rights.

But for Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who is a “realist” and therefore works within the framework of “what is” rather than embrace and fight for “what ought to be, the problem is framed in terms of how to preserve Israel as a democratic society while maintaining the settlements. And the contradictions that emerge are clear: because to do that in the face of mounting pressures from the rest of the world for freedom for the Palestinian people, Israeli society is moving further and further away from respect for human rights and civil liberties, and most recently seeking to ban and criminalize those who are advocating for BDS or organizations in Israel who seem aligned with the BDS movement. Rabbi Hartman hopes to save Israeli democracy, and so he carefully distinguishes between those in the BDS movement who want Israel to be eliminated and those who only want Israel to change its policies. From the standpoint of the current increasingly hyper-nationalist discourse in Israel, Hartman is fighting to retain a central liberal ideal–free speech. And to do that, he continually tries to show how loyal a Zionist is by demeaning anyone who supports the “one state solution” and by framing his discourse as a strategy to beat BDS. It’s a position which actually reflects courage if you happen to be, as Hartman is, an orthodox rabbi working inside the Israeli mainstream.


So we want to congratulate him for a valiant effort even as we might wish to critique some of his formulations and assumptions. But Hartman is not a political enemy–he is an ally of the forces that want to make Israel a more democratic society, and deserves our respect even as we critique some elements of his approach. I personally esteem him and the Hartman Institute and its attempts to spread Jewish education in Israel and around the world, even as I insist that Jewish education must educate people to the plight of the Palestinian people and to a more nuanced approach to the history and psychological and ideological background that created this present reality in Israel and Palestine, a background that must recognize that both sides (not just Israel) have made huge mistakes that have created the present reality, and that both sides are acting out of post-traumatic-stress-disorder PTSD that limits the degree to which they can see their own rational best interests (a thesis I develop in my book about why we need a two state solution–  Embracing Israel/Palestine available at

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

Getting serious about BDS and Breaking the Silence, by Rabbi Donniel Hartman

This post originally appeared in the Times of Israel on December 24, 2015 . It is reposted here with permission from the author.

BDS is one of the rare issues in Jewish life for which there is broad consensus. From the political Right to the Zionist Left, AIPAC to J Street, the Federations to New Israel Fund, non-haredi Orthodox to Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, all who self-identify as pro-Israel reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. For this reason, there is widespread condemnation and demands for social marginalization when an organization is allegedly associated with BDS supporters, such as Breaking the Silence.

As we know, the BDS movement is divided primarily into two camps: one anti-Israel and the other anti-Israeli policies. When Israel is portrayed as the greatest purveyor of evil, murder and injustice in the world, when nothing that Israel does is ever morally acceptable, let alone defensible, and when the only response to the “moral blight” of Israel is to erase it from the community of nations through BDS and other means, this is nothing more than a modern anti-Semitic blood libel. As our history has taught us, anti-Semitism is not caused by Jews, nor are we responsible for it. We are, however, responsible for defending ourselves, and today we have the ability to do so. One cannot engage this BDS in dialogue, nor influence its advocates. We must meet it wherever it surfaces and work to undermine and contain its influence.

There is a second manifestation of BDS: people and institutions without anti-Semitic sentiments, and who may even self-identify as friends of Israel, yet who support or are considering backing some form of BDS.

We attempt to counter this by arguing that such a move fails to recognize the complexity of our reality, unfairly singles out Israel, that the current stagnation is either not our fault or not solely our fault, and that BDS is counterproductive and moves the sides away from the negotiating table.

Embedded within the attempt to argue with this BDS is the assumption that they are partners with whom we can talk, individuals who, though we may disagree, are willing to listen and consider our arguments. If they were anti-Semites, or anti-Israel, no such assumption could be made.

This BDS is not founded on a rejection of Israel or its legitimacy, but on a rejection of Israel’s current policies toward Palestinians. They want to see a two-state solution now, and believe that the best way to effectuate this end is BDS pressure.

This BDS would cease if the occupation would end. Our challenge in combating it, is that for the foreseeable future, no political resolution of the conflict is on the horizon, and regardless of who or what is to blame, the stalemate will likely continue. How do we defend ourselves against a BDS that is responding to this impasse?

We can try to better articulate the counter BDS arguments outlined above, but alone, they will not be effective. In addition, no amount of public relations will erase the perception and reality of Israeli power and consequent responsibility, coupled with the natural predisposition to side with the underdog. As simplistic as we may believe this to be, it will not be countered by attempts to reclaim underdog status for Israel. We simply cannot be Start-Up Nation and Pathetic Nation at the same time.

It is here that we must get serious about BDS and ensure that thoughtful policies replace simple robust actions. As my colleague Tal Becker has argued, Israel does not need an army of individuals who support our policies. We need to build a network of character witnesses who recognize and believe that we are serious about addressing Israel’s challenges with moral integrity. We can debate whether Israel is right or wrong, but there must be no doubt that Israel is committed to peace and justice for all.

At its core, this BDS is the outgrowth of our failure to establish our character witnesses. Precisely because some believe there is no one to talk to, and that our policies are not the result of complex political realities, but moral decay, they feel they must resort to coercive policies.

If we want to uproot this, we need to change this perception. To do so, we need an Israeli society that embodies a values discourse with which our friends in the West can identify. This will only be achieved when Israel constantly debates, critiques, and struggles with its policies, when Israeli society is a beacon of free speech and moral self-criticism. When Israeli society, instead of trying to curtail dissent, fosters it.

In this reality, the crucial question for the pro-Israel coalition is not whether Breaking the Silence is aligned with BDS, nor whether they, or B’tselem, or the New Israel Fund, have crossed this or that line. No society that embraces free speech and dissent as essential gets to pick its critics or set the parameters within which they function. The nature of vibrant criticism and ideological dissent is that someone will always violate some line and engage in actions some find reprehensible. In fact, it is precisely by crossing these lines that critics garner the necessary attention to catalyze public debate.

Of course, lines were and are being crossed. I was repulsed by some of the actions of Breaking the Silence. When I heard their speakers on the streets of Europe present Israel as if it were a Nazi-type regime, I was insulted and angry. However, does this mean that all their claims are tainted and beyond the pale? Do we truly believe that in today’s world of social media there is a coherent notion of private criticism as distinct from public, a space where “they” will not hear? Do we want to close our public space to all critics who violate our sensibilities?

What is our greater fear — that our critics cross a line, or that we are fostering a society where criticism is curtailed? That criticisms of our government and army are presented to outsiders without proper context, or that our government and army are being positioned by some as beyond criticism?

We are strong enough to tolerate even our deplorable critics. Our gravest danger stems from the increasingly nationalist sentiment which fears criticism more than its abuse. When Israel is more concerned with the shortcoming of its critics than by the decay of the political stalemate, many around the world begin to question our character, and BDS thrives.

The Jewish people have always aspired to be a Values Nation. Our boundaries were always porous and vague. Judaism was never a religion of simple black-or-white. The lines between the heretic and the faithful, the insider and the outsider, were always gray. We survived, because we had an almost infinite capacity to tolerate differences, including those we felt to be dangerous. This tolerance gave birth to a society of debate and self-criticism that is the bedrock of our moral aspirations. Today, it is precisely this tolerance that is also our most strategic ally, for it is there, that our greatest security and strongest defense will be found.

Donniel Hartman    Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem and Director of the Institute’s iEngage Project

tags: Israel/Palestine   
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