Intolerance on the wane?
by Yakov M Rabkin
To question Zionism or the State of Israel used to touch off profound hostility. A recent report on Bernard Avishai’s lecture at the Montreal Jewish Public Library (“Israel should be a ‘Hebrew republic’, Avishai says,” CJN October 16, 2008) suggests that the hostility is subsiding. A few years ago he published a book decrying Zionism. This time, he proposes to transform the Zionist state into a state of all its citizens, an idea that is commonplace in Israel but which shocks many “mainstream” Jews here in Canada.
Those of us who have had the privilege to teach and do research in Israel appreciate the candidness of Israel’s intellectual circles. Back in Canada, many of us long in vain for such debate within the Jewish community. Whatever he is right or wrong, it is significant that Avishai’s arguments are now being heard.
This has not always been the case. Jews advocating alternatives to the Zionist structure of the state of Israel used to be shunned, besmirched and accused of denying “Israel’s right to exist”, a prelude to another Holocaust. Israeli Jews opponents of government policies have been shunned in our community. A few years ago, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists Gideon Levy of Haaretz, and a former aide to the current president of Israel, could not find a Jewish venue in Montreal and had to speak in a bar.
Avishai’s lecture and its coverage in this weekly suggest that intolerance to Jewish dissent is declining. This shows a new sense of responsibility that many Jews feel for their brethren in Israel. Some of us believe that only power can ensure Jewish future, others find this belief is at variance with the very nature of our heritage, but we all share a profound concern for what Israel is and does and, no less importantly, for the fate of our community here in Canada. The reception of Avishai’s anti-Zionist ideas shows that our community has matured enough to appreciate diversity and dissent.
Yakov M Rabkin
Professor of History
University of Montreal