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Editor's Desk: We want to be inclusive, but you must want to be included

By Leon Cohen

November 1st, 2012

         At the community summit in the summer of 2011, participants over and over said they wanted a Jewish community that was “inclusive.” Therefore, this seems to be a powerful community desire.

         But do community members really mean it? I look around at the Jewish news and the opinion articles and letters The Chronicle receives (not often enough), and I have to wonder.

         Part of the job of a newspaper, I believe, is to present what semanticists call an accurate “map” of the “territory” of community reality. Yet, I hear about, and occasionally from, Jewish people who can’t stand it that certain other Jewish people are part of Jewish community territory, and often who want those people excluded from The Chronicle’s map, no matter what that does to the map’s accuracy.

         I want to make the pages of this newspaper truly inclusive, which also means presenting the range of opinions that exist in the community. But I sometimes wonder if that is possible.

         Many groups and individuals within the community refuse to regard opposing groups and individuals as “loyal opposition” who want the same good things for the community and who disagree in good faith about how to achieve them. Rather, they view — and often treat — their opponents as enemies who willfully or covertly seek the community’s demise, or who are too deluded or stupid to realize that destruction will result from their beliefs and policies. To cite as examples some of the hottest hot-button issues:

         • There are Jewish people who sincerely believe that the community would be stronger if it tolerated and accepted Jewish homosexuals. But there are also Jewish people who sincerely believe that Jewish community survival depends on the community following all Torah laws, including the ones saying homosexuality must be banned.

         • There are Jewish people who sincerely believe that women cannot have fully equal civil rights, find individual fulfillment, and make full contributions to the world unless women can decide for themselves almost absolutely when and whether to become a mother; and that most legal restrictions on abortion constitute dehumanizing reductions of women to baby-making-machines and therefore are unjust. And there are Jewish people who sincerely believe that human life begins at or very shortly after conception; that any new human life is more precious and more important than whatever any individual woman thinks and feels about being, or about how she became, pregnant; and that deliberately destroying such life should most or all the time be classified as murder, or at least as unjustified manslaughter.

         • There are Jewish and Israeli Jewish people who sincerely believe that the Palestinian Arabs in all justice deserve to have a state of their own; that the West Bank and Gaza Strip can and should be that place (that is, they believe in “the two-state solution”); and that this will in the long run bring Middle East peace and promote Israel’s survival as a Jewish state.

         And there are other Jewish and Israeli Jewish people who sincerely regard this “solution” as a religious heresy and a probable political-economic-military disaster for Israel, and instead demand that Israel annex the territories (the “Jewish one-state solution”), and the Arabs there can either adapt to being resident aliens or they can leave.

         And there are yet other Jewish and Israeli Jewish people, religious and secular, who sincerely believe that the whole Zionist project was a mistake founded on injustice to others, and that in the long run the Jewish community would be better off if Israel were not a Jewish state but a “state of all its citizens” (the “democratic one-state solution”).

Frustrated minority

         Jews who believe deeply and passionately in one of these positions tend to avoid and denounce those disagreeing. Moreover, the passion comes partly from some larger issues implicit in these. The argument over acceptance of homosexual Jews isn’t just about homosexuality itself. It is ultimately about whether the Torah can ever be considered wrong about something. To some in our community, that very thought is not just a disagreement or a mistake; it constitutes an abhorrent and unforgivable heresy. To some, even effort to refute that idea grants that idea a kind of legitimacy it shouldn’t have.

         The passion also can come from frustration. We all know that the majority of the Jewish community is religiously and politically liberal. Therefore, members of the non-liberal minority often find it more difficult even to be heard, much less be listened to seriously.

         This can produce such anger in some people that they become tempted not only to disagree, but also to become disagreeable, feeling that is the only way to be heard at all. But the blowback is that the majority may then regard such dissenters as “cranks,” and those individuals become the issue rather than their ideas or views, making it even harder for their viewpoint to be heard and treated seriously.

         Perhaps these disagreements and reactions wouldn’t be so fierce if we felt we had a margin for error; if we had confidence that we could recover from good faith mistakes. But we Jews are only about two of every 1,000 people on the planet, a tiny and threatened and therefore scared minority. In that situation, it is not completely irrational to fear that a policy that weakens Israel might not be a mere mistake from which Israel can bounce back or reverse course, but might lead to irreparable catastrophe.

         However, one can never know truly what will result from any given policy or view. As the great British philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out in “On Liberty,” the harms or benefits that result from specific opinions are themselves matters of opinion, not certain fact. And as the French aphorist Joseph Joubert wrote, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it,” and “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.”

         My vision here is this: I want The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle to be as accurate and complete a “map” of the Jewish community as I and my colleagues can make it.

         I want to regard all who in good faith seek the survival and prosperity of the community as part of the community.

         I want to regard all the good faith viewpoints as deserving space on the opinion pages, and to strive to avoid the ad hominem fallacy — i.e., rejecting ideas and views solely because of the person advocating them. (This last needs a bit of nuance. There are such things as unqualified vs. qualified opinions; a high school biology student should not argue surgical technique with a physician. But in a democratic and pluralistic society, political, religious, and moral argument is supposed to be open to anybody willing to present facts and reasoning, not just to holders of degrees in political science, law, theology, or philosophy. Besides, as British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.”)

         And I want to strive to have The Chronicle contain as many opinion articles written by Wisconsin Jews as I can.

         But there’s another issue. Neither The Chronicle nor the other Jewish community institutions can draft people. If you want an inclusive newspaper and community, you have to want to be included. And you have to want it enough that you are willing to make effort and come forward at least halfway. The Chronicle cannot publish, and Chronicle readers cannot discuss, your views, if you do not write and send them.

         Please join me in helping make The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle the accurate map of the community and the vibrant forum that it could be.