Heckling has no place in the Year of Civil Discourse

While I wear many hats or kippahs, including as a rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue and as a member of the needs assessment committee of the Year of Civil Discourse, I am writing here solely in my own capacity.

These are thoughts that come to me in contemplating the heckling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Nov. 8 speech at a Jewish confab in New Orleans, and then the disrupting of a meeting in Berkeley of Jewish Voice for Peace with shouting, videotaping and pepper-spraying by individuals associated with Stand With Us.

I am prompted by my belief that in regard to the process of communication, two core values of Judaism come into play: to listen, and to observe how we speak.

The Year of Civil Discourse is aimed at the idea that as a community, we can remain cohesive and supportive of each other even if we have significant political differences. The means to do this is for interlocutors to allow themselves to listen, to acknowledge what they have heard, to withhold speculative assumptions about the motives of others, and to be enabled to speak and to know that they have been heard.

I have experienced this process and have been its beneficiary by coming to see the complexity and the sincerity of those with whom I had and continue to have serious divergences of political opinion.

I am not a supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace; after all, we have significant differences on issues dealing with Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, in this time when we are embarking on a Year of Civil Discourse, I have to express my deep disagreement with the disruption of the meeting of the JVP on Nov. 14, especially since those who came to disrupt were actually given an opportunity to address their disagreement with the organization’s positions.

Despite my deep disagreements with the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, I do not regard heckling him to have been a wise or useful approach in promoting dialogue in the Jewish community about our various ways of seeking peace for the people of the Middle East.

That said, I do not agree that the disruption of JVP’s gathering can legitimately be characterized as “tit for tat” — that there is any equivalence between a few moments of vocal and boisterous disagreement aimed

at a man with a bully pulpit in the Jewish community and in the world media, and the invasive action taken at a meeting of the JVP, a small group which, at least in the Bay Area, has been deprived of its voice within forums under our federation umbrella.

I have significant disagreements with JVP positions, but I do not benefit one iota from not hearing them, or others in our community, right, left or center. This is especially true when any of us are addressing issues of war and peace during a year when, from my perspective, time is running out on a two-state solution to bring security to Israel and the fulfillment, to some degree, of Palestinian aspirations for autonomy and independence.

If we deprive a significant voice in our community of the ability to express itself in our forums, then we can expect that its voice will find its way into discussion in ways that do not further the aims of civil discourse. Benjamin Netanyahu and members of Stand With Us  have not been similarly disadvantaged in their ability to speak within the community.

It is my prayer that all of us are able to be heard at each other’s gatherings. With our voices raised in angered shouts we can certainly be heard, but we can barely be listened to.


Rabbi David J. Cooper
is the community rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and is on the needs assessment committee of the Year of Civil Discourse, an initiative of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Northern California Board of Rabbis and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Rabbi David Cooper
Rabbi David J. Cooper

Rabbi David J. Cooper is emeritus rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, which has an ally relationship with the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair. He has been to Israel and the territories many times from 1967 to the present.