MAXWELL:  Disagreement is not equivalent to hatred

1/24/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Newspaper columnists try hard to hold their tongues and give readers the last word. Sometimes, though _ when outright lies are told, when you are cast as something you are not _ silence is destructive.

Such is the case I now face with Jewish letter writers, e-mailers and telephone callers because I believe that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people are morally wrong and self-destructive.

For believing that Israel’s policies are wrong, I am called anti-Semitic. In that light, the purpose of this column is to make this simple point: A single entity (a nation, a state, an ethnic group, a company, an individual) can do both good and bad things at the same time. Obviously, I am talking about Israel in this instance. It does good and bad things simultaneously.

Let me discuss a good thing that Israel has done, a good thing that I traveled to Israel to write about. During the early 1980s, as I wrote in a column two years ago, “the state of Israel . . . embarked on one of the boldest experiments in social, cultural and religious engineering attempted by other any nation in modern history. . . . In flights that took less than two hours . . . thousands of Ethiopian Jews were literally transported from a world of agricultural villages to a modern, industrialized democracy.” I praise the Jewish state for this act, and I donate money to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

In 1996 and 1999, I visited the campuses of Migdal Ohr in Israel. This is a school for Jewish orphans and immigrant children. Some of the kids are literally taken off the streets and nurtured. Their personal histories are heartbreaking. I have written about Migdal Ohr several times, and I send a modest check to the school every year. Again, Migdal Ohr is a good thing.

That said, I believe that Israel is wrong in its treatment of the Palestinians. I believe also, as I have written and will continue to write, that because of these policies, the United States should stop our $3-billion-plus foreign aid to the Jewish state. Much of that money is used to militarily brutalize Palestinians.

Do these views make me anti-Semitic _ a hater of Jews? Many Jews think so. But _ and this revelation may surprise many readers _ many other Jews who disagree with me know full well that I am not anti-Semitic. Some of them are my friends and colleagues at the St. Petersburg Times and former classmates and professors at the University of Chicago. My Jewish drinking buddy at the Times disagrees with me on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we remain friends.

Four years ago, my colleague Martin Dyckman invited me to his son’s bar mitzvah. I did not hesitate to attend because Martin is my friend. When I need a special reading of my work, I call on him. When he needs my thoughts on a column of his, he asks me to read it. I disagree with Martin on some aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he does not blast me as anti-Semitic.

The label would be a lie.

Last year, I attended two other bar mitzvahs, one in Fort Lauderdale and one in New York. Each year, I celebrate various holidays with Jewish friends. I will do the same this year.

On most of my trips to New York, I spend time with Henry Ross and Rob Lederer, both Jews. Henry is a jazz pianist. I have had many good times in his home, and, whenever I can, I listen to him and his band play at various clubs. Rob is the founder of Whole Nation, a nonprofit organization that works to erase racism. We are working on several projects. Henry absolutely disagrees with me on the Palestinian question, but I will be with him and his wife in their Greenwich Village apartment in April. Rob disagrees with me, too, but we still visit bookstores together and roam the streets of Manhattan. Neither man would think of calling me anti-Semitic.

Another Jewish friend and his wife in New York let me stay at their apartment when I am there. For their and my convenience, I try to time my visits when they are out of town.

Currently, Roy Kaplan, director of the National Conference for Community and Justice for the Tampa Bay Region, and I are organizing a summit on race to be held in Tampa Bay in March. Roy, a Jew, and I have disagreements. But we still spend many hours together organizing a summit on race. Roy knows my position on the Palestinian question, but he is too sensible to accuse me of being an anti-Semite.

My point? Like blacks who mindlessly charge others with racism, many Jews use the term “anti-Semitic” recklessly and make enemies unnecessarily. Disagreement may not amount to hatred. Oftentimes, disagreement is simply disagreement.