This post is adapted from an article published by the Jewish Journal in Ethical Imperatives: A Blog by Rabbis and Scholars of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
As pervasive as is the influence of Wexner alumni in North American Jewish life, one finds volatility, frustration, and/or avoidance in talking about Israel. So many of us are losing by this fact, whether we serve as rabbis, lay leaders, or professionals, and wherever we locate ourselves politically, denominationally, and professionally.
In rabbinic circles, for example, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this the “death by Israel sermon.” Our communal discourse on Israel has grown so ugly that many have stopped caring and engaging at all.
I work with institutions and leaders across the country to build open, constructive communication across political divides on Israel. I’d like to share three prevailing patterns in the current American Jewish conversation about Israel, why it should urgently concern us, and what we can do about it.
The first and most common pattern is avoidance. Rabbis dodging the “death by Israel sermon” is just one example. Most Jewish social justice organizations have explicit policies to avoid Israel. It seems every week another institution bans Israel from its listserv. Even what presents as apathy among millennials is often a mask for avoidance: oh, that nasty conversation, who wants to go there?
The second pattern is open antagonism: vilification, ad hominem attacks, quoting each other out of context, impugning motives, and distorting each others’ positions to reckless caricatures.
The third could be called “avoidance 2.0” and refers to the widespread tendency to congregate, conference, and talk exclusively to those with whom we agree. We splinter into self-affirming nuclei of our respective organizations, each of them morally superior and self-certain, talking past one another, and now and then colliding in frustration and hostility. Rival camps rally and take pride in the numbers of those who are with them, while dismissing those who aren’t as dangerous, ignorant, malicious or loony.
These dynamics are hardly unique to us as Jews. Many observers have noted that according to several markers our culture and government are more polarized and combative than they’ve been at any time since the Civil War. Rage has become the common vernacular. Congress has become hyper-partisan to the point of dysfunction. 40 years ago members of Congress were considered party loyalists if they supported their party’s position 70% of the time; now they are under immense pressure to vote along party lines 100% of the time. Walter Cronkite has given way to Fox, MSNBC, and talk radio. In the broader public, people sustain far fewer friendships with those of different political orientations than they did 30 years ago; most of us encounter people who think differently than we do less and less, which only intensifies the ease with which we can demonize and project all kinds of things onto our ideological counterparts.
For the Jewish community, where these dynamics are felt most acutely around Israel, these patterns are enormously costly and debilitating. We’re unraveling relationships and institutions, corroding community, and generating cynicism, distrust, and fear. We’re alienating potential allies and turning people off, particularly younger generations of Jews. We’re engendering fatigue and burnout among activists of all stripes as well as the broader public. We’re obstructing and distracting from genuine problem-solving, and drowning out creative thinking. Resources that should be used to negotiate intelligent ways forward are used instead to attack or simply fight for the chance to be heard.
A dominant strand of Jewish tradition directs us to a more productive way, one which would replace these counterproductive patterns with mahloket l’shem shamayim (“sacred disagreement”) that is no less passionate and yet is generative rather than destructive.
The paradigm for mahloket l’shem shamayim is presented in the Mishnah and later commentary through the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, as contrasted with Korah’s rebellion (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:17). Numerous commentaries try to tease out what distinguishes Hillel and Shammai from Korah, and cluster around two principles: the dispute’s method and its purpose. Hillel and Shammai exemplify a constructive method of argument: sustaining mutually-dignifying relationship even in the face of profound disagreement. Goes another interpretation, Hillel and Shammai differ from Korah in their objective, that is, the pursuit of truth rather than power or victory. Even if they “lose” they win, for they don’t hold their views out of stubborn attachment to them or ambition for dominance, but in collaborative pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
How can we restore a spirit of “sacred disagreement” to our communal conversation about Israel?
In recent years, a few pioneering organizations, institutions and leaders have spawned efforts to model and teach generative engagement across our differences on Israel. Individual synagogues and campus Hillels have hosted rounds of study, dialogue, and inquiry. City-wide initiatives in San Francisco and organizations like the Jewish Dialogue Group and Encounter have produced resources, models, and lessons learned that must be built on across the country. I have been honored to be involved with several of these efforts, working alongside partners and colleagues to replace the false choice of hostility vs. silence with curiosity and mutual learning in the face of our most passionately-held differences.
Now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is taking on the task of building this work on a national scale, turning what is a trickle of initiatives into a torrent – and we need your help.
We need your help making commitment to “sacred disagreement” as widespread as we have made our commitment to social justice. We need your help identifying opportunities for programs that will build capacity in the art and skill of heavenly dispute for rabbis, seasoned professionals, emerging leaders, and communities at both local and national levels. We have programmatic templates, training modules, tried-and-true and innovative strategies to support meaningful communication across lines of distrust, aversion and dismissal. We need your help — as catalysts and connectors — bringing these resources to the institutions and networks that need them.
Because a community’s destiny does not rise and fall based on how it handles its times of harmony and consensus, but on how it responds to its 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.
Please write to me if you are interested in bringing this work to your community or institution. And please share your thoughts and observations as well!
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna, Class 14, is an educator, social entrepreneur, and thought leader building programs and training leaders at the intersections of Israel, Jewish thought and conflict resolution. She is the Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affair’s Civility Initiative, a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute faculty, and was the founding Director of Encounter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.