“Have you ever noticed how nice people are to babies and to dying people? I wonder why we can’t be kinder to people in between!” I heard this penetrating question from beloved singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman when we were teaching together at a conference on Jewish approaches to healing many years ago. I have never forgotten it.
I was reminded of this ironic truth this past week, as the battle over Richard Goldstone’s grandson’s bar mitzvah unfolded. Richard Goldstone, the internationally renowned jurist from South Africa, known for his service as chief prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, led a UN-sponsored investigation in Gaza and Israel following the recent war. He then authored a scathing report, alleging war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians, but with particularly harsh condemnation of Israel’s actions.
I was not surprised that his report created a storm of controversy, with most Israeli and American Jewish leaders attacking Goldstone, a committed Jew and devoted supporter of the State of Israel, for harming Israel with his withering criticism. A small number of American rabbis and Israeli leftists supported Goldstone, defending his integrity, and, in some cases, his report. Goldstone’s language had been fierce, and so it is not surprising that it stirred powerful reactions on both sides.
What did surprise me was the announcement by members of the South African Zionist Federation that protesters would picket the synagogue on the day of Judge Goldstone’s grandson’s bar mitzvah if Goldstone attended. In one sense, one might regard such a protest as a legitimate expression of free speech. But how could one Jew picket another Jew’s grandson’s bar mitzvah, regardless of how offensive one found his views? It seemed to me that righteous anger blinded people to the call of basic decency in this situation, in which one would naturally suspend the usual political arguments to honor a sacred milestone in another’s life.
The crisis has since been averted. The leadership of the local Jewish community has worked out an agreement, whereby the protesters agreed there would be no pickets on the day of the bar mitzvah, in exchange for a meeting with Judge Goldstone to discuss the report. Thank God – no pickets at the synagogue.
But I am left with a sense of deep sorrow about the whole affair. What would it take for us – from left or right or any political viewpoint – to restrain ourselves even temporarily from rhetorical battle? Would a birth or a death be enough to curb our furious patterns of attack and counter-attack? As violent speech spirals out of control, what will it take to restore basic human kindness among us?