We are living, it seems, in the age of the bully. Around the world, the voices of demagoguery, xenophobia and tribalism are on the rise. Too often, they control the debate. It is hard to believe, in 2017, that I have to talk with my daughters about the ways in which we have to resist and reject the culture of misogyny and cruelty coming from the White House. Of course, there have always been bullies; the one currently residing in the White House didn’t create the problem. But his presence and example have created a new and disturbing climate in this country, one that I believe has empowered other bullies to act out publicly.
This “bullyism” is infecting the American Jewish conversation – and particularly the right-wing of the Israel advocacy community. Look at what happened outside the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC just last week. A handful of thugs bearing shirts and flags identifying them as members of the Jewish Defense League – a group designated by the FBI in 2001 as a “violent extremist Jewish organization” – physically attacked protesters gathering under the banner of IfNotNow, a group of young Jews who oppose the occupation. Several protestors were beaten; one of them, a Palestinian-American teacher, was injured so badly he required hospitalization. Two of the JDL bullies were arrested. Too many of our major Jewish community organizations have remained troublingly muted or indeed silent about this resurgence of Jewish terrorism on American soil.
This story was one of the subjects of a column, entitled “How Do You Defend Israel? Abuse? A War on Women? Felony Assualt?” by Bradley Burston in Haaretz. Burston, an American Israeli, is one of my favorite commentators on what’s happening in Israel and in the American Jewish community. In his column, Burston looks at the way some in the hard-right wing of the Israeli advocacy community direct violent language and imagery – as well as actual violence— at those with whom they disagree. And he notes that many of the most vicious attacks leveled by some so-called defenders of Israel are aimed at women who dare to offer a different perspective. Read Bradley’s piece, but be warned: some of the examples Burston provides are hard to stomach.
But not all members of the new class of Jewish community bullies resort to vulgar language and violent imagery; some retain the patina of respectability as they engage in their misogynistic behavior. Burston shares the example of a prominent American-Israeli rabbi who has made a practice of singling out young leaders in the progressive pro-Israel camp with whom he disagrees and labeling them as betrayers and “enemies of the state” because of their support for human rights or their opposition to the occupation and to Israel’s settlement policy. Beyond the shocking disregard for the potential implications of his reckless and inaccurate characterizations is this troubling fact: all of young leaders that the rabbi targets are women.
Of course, in Israel the NIF community is no stranger to the use of these kinds of tactics.
For the past several years, human rights defenders, civil libertarians and those working for religious pluralism have all too often been accused of being “enemies of the state” by those who see liberal democracy and open society as a threat to their vision of what Israel should be. Not only have we and our partners experienced hate campaigns and death threats, we’ve also seen a rising tide of anti-democratic legislation aimed at chilling expression, silencing dissent, and even barring the entry into the country of lovers of Israel who may disagree with policies being pursued by the current government (like the settlement enterprise). We’ve gotten used to being the target of some of Israel’s ethno-nationalist bullies. We know that, just like those being attacked for similar reasons in the American Jewish community, we are targeted because we represent something that the bullies both loath and fear: a different vision for what could be.
So what do we do about the bullies?
I’m sure many of you got the same kind of advice I got from my parents when I was a kid, the same kind I give to my kids today: the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him. What was true in the playground is true in the Jewish community and beyond. We have to call the bullies out, and we need to demand that others do so as well. Open debate and civil disagreement are hallmarks of a healthy Jewish community. Intimidation, insults and attempts to silence differing opinions are not. Rather, they are reflections of the insecurity and fear of those who engage in them. This may be understandable, but it is not acceptable.