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Sunday, March 4, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

What is becoming of my grandfather's wisdom?


Special to The Japan Times

These days it's tough to be a journalist. This may sound like a whinge, but whinges may sometimes reflect a real situation. Oh, it's fine if you agree with the line of thought acceptable to governments, religious organizations or interest groups. But if you dare hold up a mirror to them, you may run foul of their charms.

I have always felt Japanese people to be very tolerant of the views of outsiders on their mores and national characteristics -- so tolerant, that at times they seem to encourage criticism from non-natives. Between the end of World War II and, roughly, the end of the last century, foreign opinion on things Japanese, whether in the press or on television, was given wide and generous coverage. In the 1980s, when I was often on TV talk shows, I was urged by my producers to "tell us what you really think of us." When I said that I loved living in Japan, and felt myself a part of it, one producer grimaced, "No, we want you to tell us how awful we are!"

I can think of no other country that would so admirably have tolerated foreigners speaking negatively in public about its national character. Would China or the United States, for instance, give prominence to non-Chinese or non-Americans on TV, welcoming their comments about how those countries must change their fundamental ways of thinking in order to be considered just and democratic. I don't know how to say "butt out, buddy" in Chinese, but I do know that Americans, on their part, generally believe they have little to learn from the outside world about the art of governance.

Lately, however, the atmosphere has thickened in Japan. A number of my journalist friends who write about this country have found themselves under attack from official organizations. So have I. Regarding an article of mine in the Canberra Times, a Japanese Embassy spokesman in Canberra wrote in, calling my views on Japan expressed in the article "grossly misleading" and "totally unfounded."

Affection and concern

Now, I am not for a minute going to defend myself, nor call into question the spokesman's sincerity or passion for truth. But -- and this applies to my journalist friends, all of whom are well-disposed toward Japan -- I would prefer it if governments and their representatives were able to distinguish between those who criticize Japan out of a genuine affection and concern for the nation, and those who actually wish it ill (of whom there are plenty).

I feel that the great majority of Japanese people can distinguish between these two. But is that distinction being lost in the new "beautiful" Japan, where patriotic sloganeering seems to be replacing thoughtful analysis? Is the Bush doctrine that you are either with us or against us -- and there is no reasonable middle ground -- gradually gaining ground in high places and trickling down from there?

This sort of intolerance toward pluralistic journalism has been especially evident lately in discussions relating to the state of Israel. In recent decades, any open debate about Israeli policy or, indeed, the fundamental notion that Israel is now and forever a Jewish state, has been shut down -- primarily through intimidation. If a non-Jew says a critical word about Jews or Israel -- Wham! They're "anti-Semites." If you are Jewish and, god forbid, so much as mention that orthodox Jewish views or Israeli policies might not be 99.44 percent pure, then you are accused of "hanging out dirty linen" for all to see -- not, of course, that we Jews ever have any dirty linen.

This wasn't always the case. Traditionally, Jews are known for being self-deprecating and self-critical, almost to a fault. Many prominent Jewish people have worked tirelessly for non-Jewish causes, identifying with refugees from countries all over the world. And being anti-Zionist did not mean being anti-Semitic. My maternal grandfather came from a line of Talmudic scholars that I can trace back to the early 16th century. Yet he was a socialist and an anti-Zionist (and also, until the Great Depression of the 1930s, a wealthy entrepreneur).

For years, however, particularly since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the pressure has been fierce on Jews around the world to fall into line and remain silent about any perceived Jewish shortcomings. One word perceived to be against anything Jewish and right away you're anti-this and anti-that. Someone has been upping the anti, if you will -- and it isn't those who favor open dialogue.

In October last year, pressure from Jewish activists led to the cancellation of a public lecture by British historian Tony Judt in New York on "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Judt, who is a professor at New York University, has for some years been a public advocate of Israel as a "binational state," that is, not an exclusively Jewish religious one.

Innuendo-mongering

Last month, Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor at Indiana University, in an essay published by the American Jewish Committee, denounced the views of anti-Zionist Jews such as U.S. playwright Tony Kusher and British academic Jacqueline Rose as being "linked to anti-Semitism." Judt, too, has come in for heavy innuendo-mongering from Jews who seem to believe that the Jewish way of life is a monolith with a surface that is the same overall. That's despite it really being more like a matzo ball, with lots of amazing detail on the surface and a core as inconsistent as life itself.

How have two ethnic groups, the Japanese and the Jews, both known for their intellectual vigor and philosophical openness, become so ideologically narrow, quelling criticisms here and there as if they were fires that had to be put out?

Such attacks from official Japanese sources, as my journalist friends and I have experienced lately, and as progressive Jews now undergo on a daily basis, only create a cheap polarization of argument. They reduce the free discussion of ideas to the level of crude name-calling and acid labeling. They corrode and destroy free speech.

This is not to say that journalists, professors or anyone else who puts forth opinions to the public are necessarily correct. Like everyone, they make mistakes and should be taken to task for them, in public.

But those who have no agenda other than to delineate the outlines of issues and seek to understand their true nature do not deserve the labels that officials are wont to stick about.

My grandfather once said, "Everything in the Talmud can be summed up in one sentence: Do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. The rest is commentary."

The tolerance and generosity of spirit contained in that are what we should be aspiring to. If we are entering an era in which we cannot see the message for the commentary, then we'll all be lost -- left, right and center.



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