Debates and the freedom of speech

January 8, 2014 by

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A Jew is kidnapped, and there is only one way to free him. The community must summon the Prophet Moses to take part in a religious disputation with the Archbishop.

 Who on earth can “summon” Moses? The community figures they will have to cheat a little. They dress up the huge bearded Shimon the Butcher in biblical clothes, and push him towards the disputation.

 “I may look like Moses,” pleads Shimon, “but I don’t know a thing about religion! How will I be able to debate the Archbishop, of all people? I hear tell he was once a Jew who studied at Yeshiva…”

 “Don’t worry, Shimon,” explains the Rabbi, “I will be standing right next to you and I’ll whisper all the answers in your ear.”

 But the moment “Moses” arrives at the medieval arena, he is pulled up onto a high platform, separated from the Rabbi by yards of scaffolding. The Rabbi looks up at him, helpless.

 “Hear ye hear ye!” cries the adjudicator on the platform, “On my left stands the great Archbishop! On my right stands the Jewish Prophet Moses! Today they will engage in theological dispute! And, since the Archbishop does not speak ancient Aramaic, and since Moses clearly does not speak Latin, this disputation will be conducted in SIGN LANGUAGE!”

 The Archbishop begins the mute intellectual duel. He draws a wide circle in the air. Shimon the Butcher points down to the earth. The Archbishop brandishes three fingers. Shimon raises a fist. The Archbishop reaches behind him and lifts up a glass of wine and an loaf of bread. Immediately Shimon pulls out a boiled egg, breaks the shell on his forehead, and begins to eat it.

 At that the Archbishop pales. He shakes his head, and signals to all that he is defeated. “Moses” has won, and the kidnapped man is freed into the arms of a rejoicing Jewish crowd.

 As they help him down from the scaffolding, the other bishops quiz the Archbishop as to the meaning of the defeat. He shakes his head in awe:

 “Genius… pure genius… I signaled to him that the Lord ruled the heavens and the earth. But he replied that more crucially the Lord lives with Man on earth. And he’s right! He’s right… Then I reminded him of the Holy Trinity, but he straightaway pointed out that for all his blessed incarnations, the Lord is one. As a final attempt to escape his massive intellect I showed him the body and the blood of Christ! But he just showed me the egg, the symbol of life eternal, and I knew I was bested…”

 At the same time the joyous but confused Jews were asking for Shimon the Butcher’s interpretation of his victory. They found Shimon as non-plussed as they were:

 “I dunno what happened, to tell you the truth,” he stammered, “He told me he was going to throw us Jews out to the ends of the earth, and I told him we we’re staying right here. He threatened to poke my eye out  with a fork – I told him I’d punch him on the nose. They he got out his lunch, and I got out mine!”

 I love telling this story. For some reason, no matter how many times the audience has heard it, or heard a version of it, they still laugh happily at the punch-line. Yet the joke conceals – as do many Jewish jokes of a certain era – a great deal of pain.

 A disputation was not a nice thing. The idea that one’s freedom may be dependent upon one’s ability to argue is terrifying to imagine. To lose a theological dispute was not to “lose an argument”, but to lose one’s basic rights. Yet in Jewish folk memory, the disputation is a recurring motif of street-smart trickster Jews outwitting the untrustworthy goyim and winning the day. It’s a feel-good story drawing on one of the darkest periods of Jewish history.

I was reminded of this story a few months back. I was on a fact-finding mission with the Makom team, mapping out the nature of Israel education in the UK, and ended up in a late-night conversation with an old friend. We had grown up together in Habonim Youth Movement, were weaned on the same Zionist heroes, and were meeting up for our annual heart-to-heart. I have been living in Israel for the past 17 years, while he has spent most of this time living in the UK.

 He was telling me about “The Inheritance of Abraham”. This was a policy paper issued by the Scottish Baptist Church, about Israel. My friend had been called by a radio show to comment on its contents, which he assumed were highly critical of Israel. He was ready to roll out his usual “yes but” response: Yes, the occupation of the West Bank must stop, but critique of Israel must not spill over into demonization or anti-semitic slurs. But then he read the report.

He was stunned to find that the attack on Israel was not only political: It was theological. Israel was not only accused of maltreatment of Palestinians. The Jews themselves were deemed guilty of overplaying their “chosen people” hand, and were mostly condemned for interpreting their own scriptures wrongly. In short, the critique was that they were not, well, Christian enough. The position paper, which has since been altered quite significantly, was couched in almost classic Disputation language.

 My friend had quite rightly pointed out that the Christian church should be the last institution to lecture people on behaving in a “Christian” fashion, but beyond that, a criticism of the religious approach of another is simply out of bounds. “You can’t say that,” was his phrase.

 I found myself only half-agreeing with my friend.

“Well,” I found myself correcting him, “You can say it, but you’d be wrong.”

“No,” pushed back my friend, “You can’t say it.”

I was surprised. This, coming from the person who had written a seminal book about Westen traditions of democracy and freedom of speech? There are things that cannot or should not be said? Surely it is okay for the Scottish Baptists to write and publish what they want, just as it is within our rights to tell them where to stick it?

And what about the Jews living in Scotland? My friend asked gently. What must life be like for Jews in Scotland when everyone is looking at them as Christ-killers? You cannot, he went on, separate the statement from the power that stands behind it. The fact is that the Baptists in Scotland have the power to make Jews’ lives miserable. There is nothing free about a discourse held between the powerful and the powerless.

But then, I wondered out loud, don’t we just find ourselves rushing to proclaim our powerlessness rather than dealing with criticism? Can only the weak critique the weak? And who is to judge who is weaker than whom? I was thinking of my Israeli context. Palestinians argue they are weaker than Israel – so Israelis must not critique their behavior? Does weakness free you from responsibility? And Israel – whenever accused of wrong-doing – will often point to the huge threats surrounding us from the entire Arab world. If we see ourselves as weak does this exempt us from critique?

My friend would not back down. He was, in the end, arguing about the moral propriety of the Disputation.

And it was in this realization that we discovered why it was that we found ourselves on two different sides of this argument. Why it was that I was happy simply to dismiss the “findings” of the Scottish Baptists, and why he was keen to deny their right to publish the findings at all.

 I have become an Israeli Jew and he has become a British Jew. For our formative young adult years we were both Zionists, agreeing on pretty much everything to do with the Jewish world. Now we found ourselves seeing the philosophical point of the other, but with our guts pointing in different directions.

I, after seventeen years of life in Israel, would seem to have internalized the Zionist revolution: Jews have power. As a result, we can live with critique because we can choose to ignore it. Living in my sovereign state, backed up by army and state structures, I feel that the Baptists’ opinion is just that: An opinion and not an existential threat. Whereas my friend who has lived outside of Israel for all this time, has internalized Diaspora minority-ness: Jews outside of Israel do not have such power. As a result, a word, inadvertently tossed out or consciously wielded by the powerful, can do serious harm.

We’re probably both right. Or both half-right.

Since this conversation, controversies and sensitivities have continued to crop up around the UK. The use of the Y-word in soccer matches, strange upside-down salutes, walled-off churches, and edgy TV satire. Before responding, I find myself reining in my Zionist’s shrug, ready to hear the muffled shout of the minority. 

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