The decision by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta to cancel a planned talk by Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis in Zionism”, is antithetical to Jewish values and an affront to the longstanding Jewish quest for tolerance.
A love of learning and a deep appreciation for the critical importance of education are among the most basic of Jewish values. There is a direct connection between these foundational beliefs and the core Western Civilization value of free expression.
These values, however, have come under intensifying assault of late. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has moved to more firmly outlaw criticism of his government. In China, critics of the ruling clique are routinely imprisoned. Just weeks ago at the UN, the new presidents of Egypt and Yemen both argued that in Islamic cultural it is justifiable to limit free speech.
We recoil at these challenges to values we hold sacred. But the decision of one of the core institutions of the Atlanta Jewish community to actively participate in the silencing of a voice that some find disagreeable commits these very same sins.
I understand the nature of the controversy surrounding Beinart’s position. His core argument is that, thanks to Israel’s military prowess, Jews have moved from powerless to powerful. And, given this relatively new reality, one of the core challenges facing world Jewry is to ensure that such power is wielded in ways that are compatible with Jewish values.
In arguing that there is misalignment between these values and the policies of the current Israeli government, Beinart has sparked controversy in certain quarters.
But, let us engage in debate, and let us learn from the debate. The JCC could have ensured that opposing views were heard. They could have sponsored additional panel discussions or invited further speakers to address the issues considered in Beinart’s book. In short, there are many approaches that the JCC could have taken short of the path it chose: censorship.
When The Temple here in Atlanta was bombed by white supremacists in 1958, Ralph McGill, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote a front page editorial that subsequently was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In “A Church, A School”, McGill decried “the political leaders who in terms violent and inflammatory have repudiated their oaths and stood against due process of law, have helped unloose this flood of hate and bombing.”
He also decried “ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion.” And, McGill famously wrote, “It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”
While the cancelling of Peter Beinart’s appearance at the Atlanta JCC was done quietly, the parallels with 1958 are striking. By failing to stand against the voices of intolerance, and by failing to be the voice of tolerance, some of our civic leaders have failed us. We deserve better. We must demand better.
BY ANDREW FEILER / For the Atlanta Jewish Times
Andrew Feiler is a management consultant and active in a range of civic causes