THE BLOG
02/24/2011 08:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jews, Israel and Free Speech: A Response to Rabbi Wolpe

My fellow Huffington Post blogger Rabbi David Wolpe has provided guidance to readers as to which Jews should be permitted to participate in public discourse and education about Israel and which should not. Interestingly, if his proposal were to be adopted, founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself would be excluded.

In his Feb. 9 post entitled, "In Israel Debate, These Jews Should Be Ignored," Rabbi Wolpe identifies two categories of Jews who "should not speak at synagogues and churches, universities and other institutions that respect rational discourse." These are (1) "those who support BDS - the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel" and (2) "those Jews who advocate the forcible transfer of Arabs from the land of Israel."

Let me be clear that Rabbi Wolpe is not suggesting government censorship, which would violate the First Amendment. His question is who should be ignored in educational and other forums in which we aim for dialogue and understanding about Israel.

His answer is to exclude two categories of Jews who are "quite simply beyond the pale": "the boycotters and the expulsionists." Let's start with the latter.

Rabbi Wolpe argues that we must shun Jewish advocates of transfer, who are guilty of "racism." In his view, "insisting that Arabs leave the land of Israel is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple." There should be "no ... place at the table [for] the crazed zealots of Zion."

David Ben-Gurion would have disagreed. "I am for compulsory transfer," he told the Jewish Agency Executive in June 1938. "I do not see anything immoral in it" (quoted in I. Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. xi). Ben-Gurion and others had long been aware that for Israel to become a Jewish-majority state in any substantial portion of Palestine would require the forcible transfer of Palestinian Arabs.

A decade later, the indigenous Palestinians still constituted about two-thirds of the population and owned almost all of the cultivated land. In March 1948, seizing the opportunity to create a Jewish Israel, Ben-Gurion and the Hagana implemented a program of transfer.

In a matter of months, hundreds of Palestinian villages were systematically emptied and destroyed, later to be replaced with Jewish settlements or Jewish National Fund forests. Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in terror. Massacres of Palestinians by Jewish forces killed hundreds, including dozens of young children.

Transfer of populations is indeed a heinous policy but I disagree with Rabbi Wolpe's view that its advocates should be excluded from discussion. The United Nations, Ben-Gurion might point out, had endorsed the partition of Palestine. Arab armies were staking out territory and the new Israel needed to secure a viable state. The Arabs would have destroyed Israel if they could. Palestinians had killed Jews.

Advocates of transfer today might say little has changed except that now the United Nations and international community have turned against Israel too. The only security for Israel as a Jewish state is to complete the process of transfer that began in 1948. Jews must stand on their own.

These arguments are not convincing to me, but excluding them and their advocates from discussion does nothing to enhance understanding. Even if transfer cannot be justified, that doesn't mean it cannot or should not be discussed.

The exclusion of BDS supporters seems even less defensible. Rabbi Wolpe presents BDS supporters as "purveyors of hate" who "should have the same intellectual status as Klansmen," alleging that they are motivated by anti-Semitism rather than genuine concern for human rights. To support this claim, he assumes, with no evidence whatsoever, that supporters of BDS have no concern about other violations of human rights around the world.

In fact, BDS is a rather traditional nonviolent human rights movement rooted in international law. It supports the legal and moral right of return of the victims of 1948, the end of Israeli occupation and equal rights for Israel's Palestinian citizens. These are matters that have driven others to violence but BDS is committed to nonviolent action through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Is that so wrong? Even if one questions or rejects the views or strategies of the BDS movement, there is no reason to exclude Jewish supporters of BDS from education and discussion. In fact, there's no reason to exclude anyone. And there's plenty to discuss.