This past week saw a partial fallout in South Africa from Resolution 2334's condemnation of Israeli settlements as violations of international law, of which we're sure to see more. On South African radio, a well-known talk-show host, Redi Tlhabi challenged the decision of the leader of the official opposition in South Africa, Mmusi Maimane, to travel to Israel. You can listen here to the podcast, (which I found distasteful) but what was even more fascinating is the dialogue which followed between a Jewish, pro-Israel journalist, Rolene Marks and Redi, and what it says about directions the Jewish community is taking.
Rolene reached out "magnanimously" (in Redi's words) to sit down for a coffee and engage in dialogue. Rolene objected to Redi's seeming rejection of dialogue, in her castigation of Mmusi for even going to Israel. What is starkly illuminating is Redi's response,
"You end by inviting me to a discussion, on or off air. I have over a period of 12 years given ALL sides to this conflict a hearing...Off air, I respectfully decline because every time I express a view that is critical of some aspects of Israel’s position, I am inundated with letters, books, documentaries, that are all pro-Israel in tone. In the last two weeks, I have received no less than a dozen invitations to have coffee and talk. I simply cannot have that much coffee. Previously I have taken up these invitations but realise that they are designed to promote a pro-Israeli stance and patronise those who hold a different view by claiming they are ‘ignorant’, ‘ill-informed’, etc. I concede that it is impossible to know all the granular details of this complex conflict but I am as informed as any reasonably bright, fair and open minded person can be. I simply hold a different view."
As a person who is deeply steeped in the Jewish community's narrative of Israel and its activities, the initial response of many was shock, "we thought she was neutral". There were those who (after a long period of appreciating her neutrality) simply dismissed her as a talkshow host who is trying to make a mark in the new afternoon slot and simply jumped on the anti-Israel bandwagon. These are difficult positions.
What has not happened yet is a hearing, a deep listening to what Redi is saying. She is proclaiming loud and clear that indeed, many of us have shared a coffee with her, time and again, but we have not convinced her:she feels we are closed-minded and oblivious to the other side, the other people in this story. For all our attempts to reach out to people different from us, we have come across as patronising and insular. In particular, our approach has not taken into account how Israel's actions appear to people in post-apartheid South Africa.
Beit Hillel: Pursuit of the other opinion
The Talmud relates a fascinating discussion regarding the Academy of Hillel. Throughout the Talmud two schools disputed each other in Jewish practise and belief: the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Generally, however, the law was legislated according to the opinion of the school of Hillel.
The Talmud questions why this is so. The obvious answer is that Beit Hillel's positions were more convincing and true! But this is not what the Talmud answers. The Talmud states that the reason that Beit Hillel became so accepted was that Beit Hillel were "gentle and humble and they learned their opinion as well as that of their opponents, Beit Shammai; and not only that, but they would teach Beit Shammai's view before their own."
Can we say this of ourselves?
Is Jewish leadership (and Orthodox Jewish Leadership, of which I am a part) characterised by mastery of the other side? Do we teach it first? Do we feel any empathy for it? Or do we intentionally close down discussion, because we feel threatened by it?
And there are so many reasons to follow Beit Hillel's lead. Surely if they had wanted to "win" the argument, Beit Hillel would never had given any airtime to Beit Shammai, their opponents? The answer is clear. They were after the truth and in this world of multiple perspectives, one needs the other perspective in order to evaluate one's own fully, in fact one needs it first, even when and especially when we disagree with it. This is true of internal Jewish matters, and in our relationships with other cultures and religions.
And yes, I know, the other sides don't bother with our narrative and are happy to live in a world of "alternative facts" where the Temple never existed and Jews have no claim at all to any room in Israel, but sinking to that level merely drowns us along with them.
We need to accept that tactically, our approach has not worked, and spiritually it is dangerous.
One-sidedness lessens us
What Redi is unwittingly pointing out to us is that we have strayed from the path of Beit Hillel, once proudly trod. Even as we engage we are displaying our one-sidedness: we are slowly losing the faculty of empathetic listening. This lessens us, opens us up to the charge of propagandising (an accusation we hear increasingly from Jewish youth) and portrays us as the stereotype of what we disdain as our enemies' greatest failing: blindness to the other side. This is not a call for moral relativism at all, G-d forbid; but as the Maharal taught us so powerfully,
That is because someone with a weak indefensible position can not withstand opposition. Consequently it is not correct to reject out of hand any views which are opposed to his – especially those which are expressed not out hostility but out of genuine interest in his religion. Even if these question are against his faith and religion he should never say, “don’t speak!” or “shut your mouth!” If he did so then there is no clarification of religion. Rather his reaction to these types of religious questions should be “Say whatever you desire to express.” He should not leave the opponent saying, “If I could I would say more.” Because if he simply silences critics and questioners he is simply showing the weakness of his religion. Thus what I am advising is the opposite of what some people think. They believe that when they refuse to speak about religion this strengthens the religion and gives it greater power. This is simply not true because avoiding the words of one’s religious opponents is simply nullifying and weakening his religion especially when he says, “Shut your mouth and don’t speak about these matters!” Thus the ancient sages, even when they found things in books which were against their religion they didn’t simply reject them. The intellect requires that one not react to criticism – especially concerning religion – by simply silencing the opponent.
Tactically, if we fail to equip our youth with both sides, we lay them bare to the slings and arrows of our adversaries; and spiritually, we impoverish them. But if we truly believed in the strength of our Jewish values and in the righteousness of Israel's cause, we would call out, "Bring it on!"