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The following is adapted from prepared talks I gave before synagogue audiences at various locations around the Bay Area in 2009-10 when I worked at the Jewish Community Relations CouncilThis past year, the JCRC, in partnership with the Jewish Community Federation and the Northern California Board of Rabbis, has led the Bay Area’s Jewish community in a Year of Civil Discourse, which you can read more about hereAs always, I invite comment.


an we talk about talking about Israel?  What a question!  Who could have thought we would ever have to ask that question?  What is going on in our community – not only in the Bay Area, but all around the country in other Jewish communities – that we even need to ask this question?  Why does a national Jewish umbrella organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, have to release a statement calling for civility among American Jews?

Before I describe what is happening today in 2011, allow me to go back to 1906 New York.   Here is a letter to the editor in the October 2, 1906 issue of the New York Times.

To the Editor’ of The New York Times:

In a report published In THE TIMES of Sunday on the riot which took place on Yom Kippur at East Broadway you attribute the disturbance to Socialist Zionists, known as the Bund.  Permit me to state that there is no such organization in existence

I am not well aware as to who caused the riot, but it surely was not brought about by the Socialist Zionists, though it may have been Bundists that, incited by Anarchists, molested peaceful worshippers. The Bund is just the antithesis of Zionism. The object of the Bund is to overturn the present Russian Government and substitute a Socialist republic. The object of Zionism is to procure – with the consent of the great powers of the world – a legally assured home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

The Bund considers Zionism as its arch enemy. I may also add that some of the most influential orthodox Hebrews both here and abroad are prominent members of the Zionist movement.

New York, Sept. 30, 1906.

What caused this Yom Kippur riot is not clear, but it may have been the result of a “Yom Kippur Ball” organized by Jewish anarchists rebelling against the traditions of the “old country.”   According to Dr. Rebecca Margolis in her paper “A Tempest in Three Teapots: Yom Kippur Balls in London, New York, and Montreal, these Balls “featured antireligious lectures, music, and refreshments for the duration of Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], from Kol Nidre to Neila.  The advertised event aroused the ire of the local Jewish community.”

Even though there haven’t been any Yom Kippur Balls or riots lately, nonetheless we are losing our ability to talk to each other with civility and respect.  This is not just an issue in the Jewish community, but in American society itself.    But, in our own Jewish community, we have found it increasingly difficult to talk to each other about Israel.

Indeed,when I was in the Bay Area, numerous rabbis told me about the absence of “safe space” in their own synagogues and temples – for them and for congregation members  – when Israel is the issue.  Congregants told me they resigned from their own synagogues because they felt they could not talk openly about their views about Israel – from the left or right – without being shunned.

This dramatic increase in incivility in the Jewish community is a result, in part, of geopolitical factors that have contributed greatly to growing tensions among left-of-center and right-of-center Jews over such issues as Hamas, Gaza flotillas, Iran’s nuclear program, settlements and the current Administration’s Middle East policies.  These issues play out dynamically in Jewish communities, often resulting in acrimony about how our community responds and advocates for its interests, how priorities for community resources are set, who is involved in decision-making for the community, and when we speak publicly about internal community dissent.

One example: What happens when someone who supports freezing settlement activity is accused of being “anti-Israel?”  Or, what happens if someone who opposes a settlement freeze is told, “You are an enemy of peace?”  What happens is this: people are forced out of engagement with Israel, and each other.  Conversation is ended.  Feelings are hurt.  Discussion of a complicated and difficult issue is shut down.  Community is undermined.

My friend Rachel Eryn Kalish has taught me a useful way to look at some of the differences among us.  This comes from work that she has done within synagogue communities locally and nationally on fostering civil dialogue about Israel.  She also works broadly within the Jewish community, with Federations, JCRCs, left-of-center and right-of-center groups.

Building on the work of Rabbi David Cooper of Kehillah Congregation in Berkeley, Rachel Eryn speaks of three archetypal subcultures in tension.  All three groups love Israel, but look at its challenges in very different ways:

  • GUARDIANS whose main concern is the safety and security of the Jewish people and Israel.
  • MODERNISTS, who are pragmatic in their caring about Israel and its role in the world, as well as its importance to the Jewish people.
  • PROPHETS, who focus on justice, inclusiveness and universalistic values.

Yet, there are inherent weaknesses in each position.

  • GUARDIANS can over-do concerns for their own group, and be seen by the Prophets as lacking empathy for “the other.”
  • MODERNISTS can disrespect the religious impulse that motivates many Jews in their connection to Israel, thus alienating some Guardians, and at the same time seem too “realpolitik” to the Prophets.
  • PROPHETS can acquiesce to moral equivalence arguments, missing important differences between Israel and its adversaries, thereby alienating both Guardians and Modernists, who accuse them of being naive and self-negating.

I use these three archetypes as simplified examples, sort of like the Four Sons in the Passover Seder.  Human nature, however, is far more complex than any archetype, so, it is perhaps better to think in terms of there being a tendency within each of us toward these three archetypes.  What I like about seeing things this way is by validating the ambivalence most of us feel it acknowledges the truths each of us carries.  None of us — or very few of us anyway — is 100% confident that we are always correct and on the right side of things.   This gives us the tools and skills to begin learning how to listen to each other.

“Pro-Israel” in a wide tent

Even the phrase “pro-Israel” is a bone of contention.  Some want to define it very broadly, others want to define “pro-Israel” more narrowly.  May I humbly suggest that “pro-Israel” should be as broadly defined as possible: 

You are pro-Israel if you support the right of Israel to exist peacefully within secure borders as a Jewish and democratic state.” 

The beauty of this definition is its simplicity: For example, it does not define where those secure borders should be but allows many people holding diverse views about borders to find COMMON GROUND on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

Of course, there are those who wish to define Israel only as a “Jewish state” and are willing to abandon democracy.  And, conversely, there are those who wish to define Israel as a democratic state only, and are willing to scrap its Jewish identity.  Between these two poles, I believe, are numerous positions — including those at odds with each other — that nonetheless can fit into a broad, wide-tent pro-Israel Zionism.

Different views as aspects of the full picture

ike other countries Israel must act in the world and must make pragmatic political decisions.  Further, Israel’s security is at risk in a dangerous world. Finally, there is a well-funded and well-organized international campaign to isolate Israel diplomatically, culturally, militarily and economically.  This is called the “BDS” Movement (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) and its goal is ultimately to bring an end to Israeli existence.

Yet, concurrently, many of us DO have idealistic, prophetic expectations and dreams for Israel.  Israel’s founders embodied these values in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that the State of Israel:

…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

The founders of modern Israel looked to the Prophets of ancient Israel for moral guidance in how the modern Jewish state would function.


Here are some questions for further exploration:

  1. What are the boundaries/guidelines that should exist – if any – for internal discussions about Israel and what are the boundaries – if any – that should exist for external discussion?
  2. How do we factor in the tremendous growth of anti-Israel groups in the Bay Area and beyond; the uniqueness of the American-Israel relationship in its importance to Israel; the fact that Israel is judged in the international community in a way that no other country is judged; and that American Jews live in the United State; their neighbors are not Hamas, not Hezbullah, not Syria, not Iraq.
  3. Having said that, are there issues in Israel that American Jews do have a right and perhaps even a duty to speak out on?
  4. What are the issues regarding Israel that particularly concern us?
  5. What are the costs of opening up the conversation and what are the costs of not opening up the conversation?
  6. Should unity mean uniformity?  Is it possible for there to be plurality and diversity and still be united?
  7. Conversely, how do we relate to those Jews — from left or right — for whom unity is not a goal?
  8. Finally, how do we discuss these serious issues without hateful name-calling?  How can we foster a culture of respectful and civil discourse?

I see a very significant danger that I think is worth mentioning – and that is the disintegration of our peoplehood. Perhaps what has allowed us to survive for 3,400 years, including 2,000 years in Diaspora, is our communal language, ethos, mutual understanding, common ritual and values.  We’ve always had divergent politics and interpretations of our Tradition.  But if we question one another’s place in the mishpucha, the family, we threaten our survival both communally and, quite possibly, individually.

So let’s try a different approach.  What if in conversation with each other, we say something like: “We both love Israel.  Let’s try to understand where we differ, even if we don’t end up resolving the issue.  THEN let’s talk about other issues facing Israel.  Maybe, just maybe, we can find common ground.”