Tolerating intolerance? PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 01 October 2010 00:00
This is no time to be silent

Alan KrinskyAlan KrinskyA recent issue of the Forward featured short essays, really just a few paragraphs long, on sins for which we ought to atone. Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, wrote about the sin of tolerating intolerance.

Diner’s case was that of the proposed Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan (whatever one thinks of the issue, it is simply a fact that the site is not at Ground Zero, and is not even within sight of Ground Zero). As she characterizes the situation, those who object to the structure are intolerant within the context of American values. And the sin she calls American Jews out for is tolerating such intolerance, what she describes as “a vicious campaign of hate” by not speaking out against it: “It is not only those American Jews who actually participated in efforts to block an Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan who have sinned. Too many of us have sat idly by, and for that, we should atone.”

Diner got me thinking, though perhaps not in quite the way she intended.

Whether we should tolerate intolerance is an old and fascinating philosophical issue. After all, if I am tolerant, but I do not tolerate intolerance, am I not being intolerant, and if so, am I really as tolerant as I imagine myself to be? But is there any moral responsibility to tolerate someone who is intolerant of others or of me?

In the world of politics, ought we to allow anti-democracy parties to run in democratic elections? That is, if the explicit platform of a party is to subvert democracy or the state, is there not a legitimate national interest in prohibiting such a party? And, indeed, this was one of the difficulties of the Gaza elections won by Hamas in 2006.

On the one hand, one could argue they were democratically elected, that this was the voice of the people expressing itself in a legitimate fashion. On the other hand, Hamas is very much anti-democratic, with its methods of extra-legal justice and its pledge to destroy a democratic state.

And yet, there is something contrary to the democratic spirit to suppress dissident views. And democratic nations such as Israel have long allowed Marxist and other parties to run and elect and seat candidates for national legislatures.

Anyway, as interesting as the philosophical issues are, Diner got me thinking about the implications of her claims for a more practical, contemporary matter: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and whether the United States or Israel will likely make a preemptive strike to destroy or at least delay the development of Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities.

As someone opposed to the Iraq war from the outset, and given the difficult situations there and in Afghanistan at the moment, I would be rather hesitant to open up yet a third front in the Middle East. And even if it were successful, what sort of consequences might such a military strike bring? What terrorist reprisals might be sparked against Israel or Jews outside of Israel or even within the United States?

Then I read some more about the situation in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic on the calculations and likelihood of an Israeli (or American) strike against Iran. And not having paid all that much attention to the issue previously, I was struck by just how serious the situation is. Often we write off political rhetoric as just that, a lot of bluster. Yet Ahmadinejad has asserted numerous times that he aims to wipe Israel off the map. Why should we not take such a threat seriously from a member of a fundamentalist Islamic regime that is trying to produce nuclear weapons? Why would he not attack Israel? What in his intolerant religious and moral outlook would ward off such an action, even if it meant massive reprisals against his own people?

So, we get back to Diner. Here we have an intolerant regime. I do not have an answer, but I cannot help echoing Diner’s posing of the question: Would it not be a sin to tolerate such intolerance, to stand idly by?

Alan Krinsky works in healthcare quality improvement and lives in Providence. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His new essay, “8 Reasons Leftists Should Be Pro-Israel,” is on The Huffington Post Web site.


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