By Peter Slezak
With other panellists who were already listed with photos on the 2012 Melbourne Limmud-Oz website, I received a curt notice of cancellation that said only “Our committee has decided not to schedule your session … into the 2012 program.”…writes Peter Slezak
It is ironic that the panel discussion that has been unceremoniously dumped was to be on the subject ‘Beyond Tribal Loyalties’ – a new book of essays by international and local Jewish writers. For the second time, organizers of Limmud-Oz have demonstrated the workings of tribal loyalties in the Jewish community. The faceless organizers have confirmed that they learned nothing from last year’s experience of severe criticism within the Jewish community and adverse publicity in the mainstream press. In particular, they repeat their demonstration of contempt for their Jewish audience whom they consider unable to think for themselves and must, therefore, be protected from dangerous opinions. Of course, the danger of hearing contrary opinions and independent thought is that members of the community might stray from the official line. The presenters who are regarded as having crossed some “red” line might turn out not be as irrational, evil or even disloyal as they have been portrayed. Support for the policies of the State of Israel must be troubling for many Jewish consciences, and the attempt to prevent critical voices being heard is a tacit admission of the indefensibility of official views.
The bans cast a disturbing light on the Jewish community as part of a familiar pattern, demonizing and excommunicating those failing to show sufficient loyalty to the official position on Israel. This intolerance of dissent and attempt to maintain conformity does the Jewish community great harm as well as bringing it into disrepute in the wider society. The organizers have given no reasons for their ban on unwelcome ideas, though their action makes a farce of platitudes about inclusiveness, diversity and openness on their website, revealing how little they have understood the basis of decent, liberal societies.
Jews, above all, might have learned something from the famous case of Spinoza’s heresy and his excommunication from the 17th Century Jewish community of Amsterdam. Contrary to the usual 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.” The crime of Galileo was dissent and Socrates was put to death for challenging official authority and failing to teach the “Gods of the State”. 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.”
The most ardent supporters of Israel must ask themselves whether the moral panic and silencing of dissent within the Jewish community should be accepted with equanimity. They might reflect on the question: Who brings more harm and discredit to Jews and to Israel? Those Jews 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 education and intellectual life should encourage people to challenge orthodoxies. It is well understood that the very mechanism of discovering truth depends on institutionalizing dissent. The directors of Limmud-Oz have shown how little they understand these important matters.
J-Wire approached Limmud-Oz Melbourne for a comment and was told “a committee member will contact you”. We are yet to be contacted.
Dr. Peter Slezak is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV) and Executive Member of Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN)