Why Civil Discourse on Israel Must Become a National Jewish Priority

by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub

  • How many of you have ever felt ill at ease having a conversation about Israel with people with whom you disagree?
  • How many of you ever felt frustrated talking about Israel, or experienced any form of alienation, antagonism, or damaged relationship in talking about Israel?

I would really love to draw out these stories and hear what’s most alive in your experiences, and thankfully we have a whole weekend together for more dialogue. In my few minutes now, I’m going to speak about the ways Israel has become the most volatile, wedge issue in American Jewish life; why that should concern us; and what we can do about it.

First, a few summary observations, drawn from dozens of conversations with Jewish leaders and community members across the country.

There are three common, current avenues for Israel engagement in American Jewish life:

  1. Avoidance. I was in a room recently with many national luminaries of the Jewish social justice movement, and most of them have organizational policies to avoid Israel. We can’t possibly, they say, build a coalition on issues like the environment, Darfur, domestic or global poverty, if we touch Israel. Rabbis of every denomination and from across the country, have voiced fear of saying anything about Israel. As one of them put it to me recently, I’m not going to get fired for my politics on health care. But I could get fired for just about any¬thing I say about Israel. Rabbi Scott Perlo, a Rabbi in LA, has referred to this phenomenon as the “death by Israel” sermon. It seems everyday I discover another synagogue or Jewish organization that’s banned Israel from its listserv. This trend sometimes presents as apathy that’s really a mask for avoidance and confusion, especially among young Jews; oh that ugly conversation; who wants to go there?
  2. The second avenue: Antagonism, Attacks and counter-attacks, on OpEd pages and in the blogosphere. Bullying – smear campaigns; and equally as damaging, reduction of each other’s nuanced positions to reckless caricatures. Reproduction of the complex arguments of those with whom we disagree as straw men: quoting each other out of context, impugning each other’s motives, listening in order to find flaws, speaking in order to score points, castigating and shaming rather than inquiring into and taking seriously.
  3. The third option, I call “avoidance 2.0”. That is Israel-related advocacy and discourse that involves congregating, conferencing, and talking exclusively to those with whom we agree. That is, the Jewish people splinters into self-affirming nucleii of our respective organizations, each of them largely morally superior and self-certain, talking past one another, or now and then colliding in frustration and hostility. Many of us rally and take pride in the numbers of those who are with us, while dismissing those who aren’t as dangerous, ignorant, malicious or loony.OR: in another version of avoidance 2.0: we say there is no problem here. That is, as long as we play it safe; we address Israel without going near any of our differences or any possible area of contention.

These are the three predominant modes of Israel engagement in American Jewish life.

I want to zoom out for a moment, as a theorist and practioneer of conflict resolution. We are certainly not the first to play out such destructive patterns of social conflict. Consider the toxicity of the abortion conversation. And we are now part of a broader, increasingly polarized American political culture in which rage has become the common vernacular. Mud-slinging has taken the place of genuine collective problem-solving.

When we on the societal or communal level get stuck in patterns of hostility or avoidance– generally a degenerative spiral of conflict has taken hold. In such a pattern, people who disagree tend to harden against each other’s genuine integrity and concerns. Informal interaction across lines of disagreement grow rare. Adversaries parody each others’ positions, dismissing each other in categorical and one-dimensional terms. Over time, it becomes difficult for anyone, wherever one stands, to engage with the conflict without being pigeon holed and attacked. Ultimately, the illusion gets created that there are two and only two opposing sides, in part because many voices of complexity, curiosity, nuance, and uncertainty get trampled or intimidated.

While I believe we are playing out these destructive dynamics full force, I’m not here to reprimand us for our evil ways. I don’t believe we are shutting each other down because we are arrogant or cruel. I believe many of us are shutting each other down because we are scared. Neuroscientists have actually tracked at the level of brain chemistry the way our brains shut down big picture thinking when we sense threat or danger; we prioritize immediate self-protection and shut all else out. We want to flee from danger or beat it down.

When it comes to entrenched social conflict, the potential for such a fight-or-flight response is always already in the room, easily ignited without direct aggression, or intended adversarialism. We see our ideological counterparts as threats or dangers only, and label them as such: “Naïve knee-jerk liberal,” “bigoted war mongering neo-con,” “traitor,” “chauvinist.”A series of buzzwords get created; someone says fence or wall, Judea and Samaria or Palestine, and we say, ‘Oh you’re one of those.’ Anyone from any side of the conflict who wants to speak has to negotiate an obstacle course of verbal landmines.

The inverse of these patterns – listening, mutual inquiry, and respect in the face of our differences — are hard enough to put into practice when we’re most at ease. When we’re confident that what matters most to us is not at risk. When we’re surrounded by those who agree with us and understand us – or at least are sincerely trying to. When we’re anxious or threatened, curiosity and openness are usually the furthest things from our minds.

This is a time when many of us, on every side of the political spectrum, are scared. Scared for Israel’s security and future. Scared that Israel is in danger. Scared that there is so much at stake: not only our peoples’ safety, but also our very identities and most strongly-held values and commitments. And what’s more, scared that our very relationships are at stake when we disagree about what will best serve those commitments. Scared that if we open our mouths and say the wrong thing we may be ostracized, put in a box, or bludgeoned. Scared that speaking will open us to being misunderstood or misconstrued, our nuances lost.

One of my colleagues in intra-Jewish dialogue work, Rachel Eryn Kalisch, has observed that ‘both guardians and prophets (which she likes to say rather than right and left) can get so crazy about Israel because perhaps at some subconscious level many of us believe if you don’t agree with me we’re all going to get killed.” You don’t know because if you did you would see how you’re collaborating with our enemies in our potential annihilation or with our leaders in driving us off a cliff!!

This is a terrifying time for all those who care about Israel. And in such a high-stakes, fraught political arena, it is also a terrifying time to talk about Israel, let alone be open to hearing others’ views and humble about our own.

But it is now when that spirit of inquiry and listening is most important. Because the closed, antagonistic, and avoidant ways we’re communicating, understandable as they are, are destroying our people in the very moment we most need to be building our people up.

Our parashah this week, Vayikra, delineates a series of animal sacrifices in intricate and, let’s be honest, yawning and gruesome detail. It’s not easy for most of us to relate to this ancient imagery of animals, fire and blood. But I won’t be the first or last rabbi to stand before you and suggest that the principles at the core of these archaic rituals DO have much to teach us.

The Hebrew word generally translated as sacrifice is korban, which literally means to draw close. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks translates korban as coming-closer offerings. The korban represents an attempt to close the distance when we’ve grown disconnected – from G-d, from each other, from ourselves. It is a symbol of our restorative effort to make things right.

One set of sacrifices described in our parashah is the hattat, or sin offering. We are commanded to offer hattat when our sins are inadvertent. For centuries, commentators have puzzled over why unintentional sins require atonement. Why must we make amends when we didn’t mean harm? Does the hattat represent repentance for our negligence? Or a wake-up call for the future, so we won’t repeat our mistakes? Or an attempt to purify ourselves, with the understanding that even unintentional wrongfulness somehow stains us?

Any or all of these may be the case, suggests Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K. Regardless, he says, we offer hattat, because our acts make a difference in the world. We are part of something bigger than ourselves; the world is impacted by us independent of our intentions. We must repair what we participate in rending even when we didn’t mean to, even when our intentions were good ones, but we nonetheless caused disharmony, injury, pain, or rupture to community or relationship. The message of Vayikra is that we need not run from the pain of which we unwittingly find ourselves a part, even when confronting it terrifies us; we can run toward it to heal it, and we must.

In the current communal climate around Israel, our destructive communication and our avoidance are leading to hurt, frustration, fear, and loneliness.

Many of us are advocating passionately out of loving commitment to our community, people and values. Others of us are shying away from difficult conversations that we don’t know how to have. Our intentions are good ones. And yet we’re causing injury and rupture to the web of community and relationship.

  • People on all sides of the political spectrum are ending up vocal and frustrated OR silent and resentful, and done with this.
  • We’re draining significant energy from our most important and urgent communal priorities, including the significant challenges Israel confronts.
  • We’re sacrificing the creative problem-solving that will only come from mining our collective intelligence, not from group think, each of us sitting in our corners, not talking to anyone who sees things differently.
  • We’re losing people. We are turning people off, and particularly the next generation, who are standing at the gates of the Jewish community, looking inside at the destructiveness of this conversation, and saying ‘not for me’ – as a slew of studies have substantiated.
  • Many potential allies have been put off and stopped caring or engaging at all.
  • Resources that should be used to navigate intelligent ways forward are instead used to attack and simply fight for the chance to be heard.
  • We’ve all lost.

It is time to offer hattat. How can we go about closing the distance among us, making amends, and making things right?

Ideally, I wouldn’t talk about HOW frontally, from the bimah. This is the sort of thing that needs to be experienced to sink in, for most of us to get it. Words fall short of the internal shifts that happen in us as we are moved out of our comfort zones, when we push ourselves to overcome anger and fear, and engage meaningfully across lines of differences … On Sun., for those attending the workshop we have planned, we will begin to walk through such a process together. And it is my hope that my weekend with you will catalyze many other such opportunities.

In my remaining few min. with you this evening, I’ll name one broad idea. We need to retrain ourselves as a people in the art of mahloket l’shem shamayim, “sacred disagreement” that is no less passionate and yet is generative rather than destructive.

Let me say a word about what generative engagement with our differences is not. This is very important, because people often confuse calls for “civil discourse” with political correctness, playing nice, or being polite. This is not what I mean. Playing nice when we don’t mean it is not generative in the least. When we hold back, masking honest disagreement, subduing our strong opinions, or avoiding controversy in the name of a forced or politically impotent common ground. Common ground is often a prescription for blandness, not to mention dulled effectiveness and creativity. As a Board president at a workshop I did recently noted – unanimity at a board meeting is often a deadly sign of the vitality of an institution.

Generative engagement is not about politeness. We may be utterly polite to one another, we may “play nice”) and still go on viewing one another in dismissive and polarized terms. I may still see those who don’t share my views as left-wing or right-wing loonies, I just stop saying so out loud. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Generative engagement with our differences is not about subduing our disagreements. It’s about opening up disagreement, getting at our differences, even when they remain dramatic, in ways that they become a source of innovation and learning.

Our differences – especially our most profound differences – become generative when we look at them as crucial signposts, signaling to us that there is something essential we have to learn as a community, something we are missing, something that needs to be thought through deeply and addressed with our greatest collective wisdom if we are ever going to learn its lessons. And what we need most is a communal infrastructure and widespread communal training for leaning into those differences rather than avoiding them or attacking each other in the face of them. We need programs that actively build relationships and support meaningful communication across lines of distrust, aversion and dismissal.

I know from experience bringing hundreds of Jews from across the political spectrum together, this isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky vision. Through my work, I have helped bring together more than 1800 Jewish leaders from a staggering range of religious and political backgrounds: national-religious settlers and anti-occupation activists; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis; lead supporters and staff of AIPAC and J street.

With the support of carefully crafted programmatic structures, I’ve watched participants confront scary, destabilizing and in some cases shattering new perspectives. And it turns out, time after time, that the sky doesn’t fall, but often, the earth cracks open. It turns out they have so much to say to each other, when supported to do so. When they can hang on despite all impulse to shut down. Listen to people they might otherwise have avoided. When they can reach toward each other with humility and mutual regard; and reach for a more compassionate and solution-oriented politics that only emerges from the collective intelligence of divergent views.

I’ll give just one example: leftists and liberal-leaning Jews tend to advocate for the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and rarely if ever give recognition to the holiness of the Land of Israel to religious Jews, and the heavy trauma that Jewish settlers would undergo were they displaced from it. People on the national-religious right, meanwhile, attach tremendous significance to the sanctity of the land to the Jewish people, but rarely to the sacredness of the Palestinian human beings living on it. Through mahloket l’shem shamayim – dialogues of sacred disagreement – I’ve witnessed a new discourse that reflects empathy for what this land means to the national-religious community alongside empathy for the needs of the human beings living on it. I believe it is from such deep compassion toward all sides and such co-intelligence – not just between Jews and Palestinians, but among us as Jews — that innovative ways of deescalating and resolving the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict will emerge.

In organizing this weekend committed to a more constructive conversation on Israel, Beth Sholom has already shown its commitment to offering hattat, to restoring relationship and the fabric of community in the face of profound and at time heated difference. This is courageous work – and essential.

Because a community’s destiny does not rise and fall based on how it handles harmony and consensus, but on how it responds to moments of greatest discord and disagreement. We are now in such a moment on Israel. How we meet this challenge now will impact the Jewish people for generations to come.