Peter Slezak on his removal from the program of Limmud-Oz

Limmud-Oz organizers have sought to explain their actions in banning presenters from their festival. Michael Misrachi explains that the executive committee of Limmud-Oz “decided not to accept” certain presenters, which is problematic enough, but this misrepresents what happened in a significant way. The decision “not to accept” was, in fact, a summary cancellation of talks that were already accepted and listed on the program, and were not thought to be objectionable in any way. No concern was perceived with either my own talk or Vivienne Porszolt’s until after the Marrickville Council meeting on their BDS policy where I had made a three-minute speech. Our presentations for Limmud-Oz had nothing at all to do with BDS, as our submitted titles and abstracts made perfectly clear. Accordingly, it is entirely untrue that the reasons for our removal have anything to do with what Misrachi now describes as concerns about the content of the program. He now explains, “We are not obliged to give expression in our program to every view held in the community,” but he knows that the cancellations have nothing whatever to do with the views to be expressed. My presentation was to be about patriotism and “Ahavat Israel” or love of the Jewish people, adapted from a published article of mine titled ‘Gods of the State.’ Indeed, I had been specifically invited to make a presentation in the Israel/Middle East section, following the talk I had given at Limmud-Oz in 2009 on ‘Jewish Identity and Jewish Responsibility’ (…). These facts casts a somewhat more disturbing light on the motives of Limmud-Oz organizers, including the directors of Limmud International who endorsed it. Director of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Vic Alhadeff, has been reported as approving of the action by Limmud directors, but perhaps he was not aware of these facts and took the official excuses at face value.

Since the official excuses have been the focus of public discussion it is important to reflect on the important principles raised. Misrachi explains “This decision is not about censorship” because he says “we do not deny the right of BDS proponents to express their views to whomever they like”. Permitting us to speak freely elsewhere is undoubtedly very magnanimous. However, organizers are hardly innocent of the charge of censorship for this reason. Misrachi, explains that “this decision is not about ‘banning ideas’ (which we have been accused of doing)” because “We are not obliged to give expression in our program to every view held in the community.” Of course, this is precisely to ban ideas, contrary to the exemplary principles of Limmud-Oz on their website expressing a commitment to inclusiveness.

As so many in the Jewish community have recognized, even if the cancelled talks were to express views regarded as objectionable, not permitting them at Limmud-Oz raises traditional questions about tolerance and the principles of a liberal community. Organizers’ insensitivity to these issues causes great harm to Limmud-Oz and, above all, to the Jewish community who are repeatedly seen to be making such attempts to prevent critical opinions being heard. It’s not a good look, as they say. Efforts to have Israeli and American visitors address Jewish audiences have been repeatedly rebuffed when they are known to be critical of Israeli government policies. This is not the sign of a healthy, rational or decent community. In any other context, concerning any other country, we would recognize this disturbing mentality – intolerant of dissent and seeking to enforce a patriotic conformity. The actions of Limmud-Oz organizers is part of a consistent pattern, trying to excommunicate those failing to show sufficient loyalty to the official position on Israel. These attitudes and actions do the Jewish community great harm internally as well as bringing it into disrepute in the wider society.

Misrachi’s letter cancelling my talk cited my “vocal involvement in the BDS campaign connected to Marrickville Council.” However, it is acutely ironic that my Marrickville speech (…) was a plea for liberal values and toleration – the grounds on which I am not tolerated at Limmud-Oz. I did not “publicly advocate a total boycott against Israel” as Misrachi now falsely claims, but argued that even critics of BDS policy should oppose the Council’s backing down from its earlier democratic decision because the campaign of denunciation and vilification should not be allowed to succeed. I suggested that the issue at stake is not so much BDS but the question of the kind of society we wish to live in.

Clearly, the same issue arises for the Jewish community concerning opinions which are, after all, widely held and debated in the wider society. BDS against Israel is surely a position that deserves serious discussion, and not just among those who agree with each other. For this reason, the behaviour of Limmud-Oz organizers is not only an affront to the presenters who were summarily removed from the program. Much more important is the fact that, on their own account, organizers have treated members of the entire Jewish community with contempt by presuming to decide on their behalf whom they may be allowed to hear and what they should believe.

It is particularly revealing that Limmud-Oz organizers had no problem with Palestinian advocate of BDS, Samah Sabawi, being on the program last year. Clearly, Jews appearing in a Jewish forum are perceived to be more of a threat to maintaining conformity with approved doctrines. However, unquestioning support for the policies of the State of Israel must be troubling for many Jewish consciences, and the attempt to prevent dissident voices being heard is a tacit admission of the indefensibility of official views. The danger of hearing contrary opinions is that members of the community might think for themselves and stray from the official line. Jews who support BDS are regarded as having crossed some line, but they might turn out not be as irrational, evil or even disloyal as they have been portrayed.

By any measure, the levels of denunciation have been disproportionate to the alleged sins of BDS. Even its severest critics must acknowledge that BDS is a form of non-violent protest involving investment and purchasing choices based on political and ethical preferences, that is, concerns about justice, human rights and international law. That’s all. However misguided, it is hard to understand why its advocates deserve the demonization that has become standard. The most ardent supporters of Israel must ask themselves whether the moral panic and silencing of dissent on this issue within the Jewish community should be accepted with equanimity. The usual concern is expressed by the term “delegitimizing Israel” which is an Orwellian expression designed to prevent people thinking clearly. The only things being delegitimized are violations of human rights and international law. The existence of Israel is not in question, only a harsh military occupation that must cause moral concern even for the most ardent Zionist. And it is relevant to note that today the only state that has actually become delegitimized to the point of disappearance is a Palestinian state.

The actions of Limmud-Oz directors makes a farce of platitudes about inclusiveness and openness on their website, revealing how little they have understood the basis of decent, liberal societies. They permit robust debate among those who agree with each other! However, contrary to Misrachi’s rationalizations, you can’t have partial inclusiveness and just a little bit free speech. Even the most tyrannical regimes permit free speech to the views they agree with. Paradoxically, in an open, decent society, it’s the views that you detest most of all that you must protect and ensure get a hearing. As a matter of self-interest, the role of the “devil’s advocate” is essential if we are to retain confidence in our cherished views. In his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ in 1859 the philosopher J.S. Mill famously articulated the principle at stake here – the need to protect and, indeed encourage, unpopular opinion against the “tyranny of the majority.” He said this tyranny may be “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since … it leaves fewer means of escape … enslaving the soul itself”. Mill argues counter-intuitively that preventing opinions from being heard because they are regarded as not merely false, but even immoral, impious or pernicious, is the case that is “most fatal,” for “These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.” For example, the crime of Galileo was dissent. Socrates was condemned and put to death for challenging official authority and failing to teach “Gods of the State” – my very topic for Limmud-Oz. Mill says that his executors were not bad men, but on the contrary, “men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people.”

Members of the Jewish community might reflect on the question: Who brings more harm and discredit to Jews and to Israel? Those who seek to engage in well-intentioned debate over the most difficult, divisive questions, or those who seek to prevent it? The heritage of the Jewish and Western intellectual tradition is the idea that in a healthy society education and intellectual life should be subversive, encouraging people to challenge orthodoxies. It is well understood that the very mechanism of discovering truth depends on institutionalizing dissent. The directors of the Shalom Institute and Limmud-Oz have shown how little they understand these important matters.

Dr. Peter Slezak
Associate Professor in History & Philosophy
Program in Cognitive Science
University of New South Wales


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