Monday, June 24, 2002

Why Not Civil Disobedience?

When Meir Kahane was murdered, I was asked by Newsday to write an op-ed piece on the legacy of the Jewish Defense League leader. What I remember most about the article is the suggestion that Kahane gave Jewish militancy a bad name, that because of his extremism and recklessness he made Jews uncomfortable about responding to anti-Semitic threats with militant language and activity.

We continue to be uncomfortable, although there are reasons aplenty why we should change our tactics and more boldly confront Israel’s enemies. I know, as I must have known years ago, that our aversion to militancy arises from sources far more deep-rooted than our discomfort with the JDL. Even as the Hitlerian genocide unfolded and even during the darkest days of the Holocaust, most American Jews and certainly our organizations rejected confrontational actions. We did not like boycotts – surely a gentle form of protest – and we did not want to accuse our government of being indifferent to the fate of American Jewry. That was for the fringe, for the likes of Peter Bergson and Ben Hecht whom we marginalized without bothering to consider that they may be right.

The plight of European Jewry was one more cause, one more item on the public affairs agenda of American Jewry. The murder of millions of Jews was to be addressed through conventional means. We met with members of Congress, lobbied and petitioned the White House, held rallies and made and listened to speeches. In the main, we were preaching to the converted. Our rhetoric begot the rhetoric of office holders and seekers. We asked for little and got even less.

Israel’s crisis is like no other in the Jewish State’s more than fifty years of survival in a dangerous environment. Israel’s right to exist is being challenged, not only by Palestinians and many others in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but also by important voices within the western intelligentsia and the media. We can regard this situation as just another difficult problem confronting Israel, so that a conventional response on our part would be adequate. Or we can regard what is now happening as a clear and present danger, thereby requiring different and probably a less conventional and more confrontational response.

I believe that we must reconsider our communal strategy in the light of contemporary events. Our continued reliance on demonstrations, speeches and platitudes from politicians is to invite much sound and fury signifying nothing. I do not know of another group or movement that confronted with a crisis of the magnitude that now confronts all who care about Israel would continue to play it safe. There is no pain in what we do – for all of our kvetching, we remain supremely comfortable – and consequently there is little or no gain.

We can learn from causes that have upped the ante by taking steps and risks that gave substance to their feelings. Whatever history or we may say of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, by inviting imprisonment they rose above the mundane and forced the world to pay attention. They knew that their civil disobedience could not be ignored or written off as merely self-serving. To gain respect for their cause and freedom for their followers, they were prepared to give up a measure of their own freedom.

We on the other hand make a beeline for events and speeches accompanied by public relations. At the end of the day, we are disappointed and perhaps angry when the media give scant attention to the rallies we sponsor.

Of course, I know that the comparison being offered is inapt because we have no reason to engage in acts of civil disobedience. There are no laws or government to target for protest. Yet, we can demonstrate that Israel’s crisis is not business as usual for American Jews. The boycott against the Times and several other newspapers is a good starting point because it required that attention be paid. I don’t expect that this will result in a turn-around in Middle East reporting, although the early indications are that the boycott has had at least a modest impact.

The messages about European anti-Semitism published by the AJCommittee, AJCongress and ADL are another good start. They are hard-hitting, certainly not the standard fare that we have come to expect from our defense organizations.

More is needed, more meaning greater militancy against those who exhibit constant hostility toward Israel and even cross over into the once forbidden zone of challenging Israel’s right to exist. This hostility is, I believe, more pronounced in the broadcast media, although our sharpest words have been directed against the Times and other newspapers, rather than the likes of BBC and CNN. There is a cultural bias within Jewish life that gives prominence to the printed word. Whether or not we still are the people of the book, for sure we are the people of the newspaper.

Newspapers have been losing ground for what seems forever. In any case, their capacity to influence readers has always been limited. Radio, television and cable have become more critical in conveying news and shaping opinion. As one example, Israel has benefited enormously from the support provided by talk radio, as well as religious broadcasting, and this has counteracted hostility conveyed by cable news.

During two recent trips abroad I got the impression that CNN has surpassed BBC in its anti-Israel tone. This is apart from the latest outburst by Ted Turner who once more apparently forgot to take his medication before he spoke. Turner is as good an example that we can find of the great aphorism: If we want to know what G-D thinks about money, look who He gives it to. CNN reporters in the field have been atrocious. They wear their bias as badges of honor. They and their network ought to be confronted.

Are we ready yet to sit in at CNN?