Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
A week after we celebrated the 66th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel, I’ve been reflecting on how we talk about Israel in our communities. At the beginning of the month the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted against accepting the membership of J-Street into the Conference (see Gary Rosenblatt’s editorial in The Jewish Week for a good summary of this story). With the announcement of a new alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, hope has considerably waned that the recent round of peace talks with Israel will amount to any new breakthroughs. Some have expressed the belief that this is the direct result of Netanyahu’s stance during the talks. The blame game has begun. It is easy to feel somewhat demoralized by all this and frustrated when it comes to talking about Israel.
And yet, at the same time this past week one of our congregants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed our congregation after recently returning from a remarkable trip led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, where they had the opportunity to meet with and speak with leaders in government, the Israel Religious Action Center, observe the growth and development of Reform Judaism in Israel, and meet with Palestinian businessmen in addition to Israeli leaders in the business and innovation world. He returned hopeful and inspired, and he inspired all who heard him speak. Our congregation is planning on a community trip to Israel next year, and people are eager to go.
Last night, in my final class of the semester with our 11th and 12th grade students, we explored a range of Jewish values from Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s “Mitzvah Cards” and I asked students to choose ones that they felt they already ‘carried with them’ and ones that were challenging to them. One of those challenge cards was Israel. A student conveyed something that I remember feeling so strongly myself as I entered my first year of college—a sense of struggle and frustration that sometimes a thoughtful and critical engagement with Israel was silenced within Jewish settings.
I remember attending an event run by the Hillel at my college during the first Gulf War. Scud missiles were being sent Israel’s way. It was a scary time for the population of Israel. Gas masks had been widely distributed. There was no question that we would be praying for the safety of all in Israel. In the midst of an informational session one student stood up to contribute to a discussion about Israel to express his hope that, even in the midst of a time when we needed to stand by Israel and pray for its safety, we wouldn’t lose sight of other issues regarding the peace process or equality within Israel that were also important to talk about in a Jewish setting on campus. He was literally shouted down—how dare he even ask the question at a time like this!
I have a visceral memory of my internal reaction to witnessing that moment. I wanted no part of it. I cared deeply about Israel and its future and its safety. And at the same time I found the culture that squashed thoughtful and caring debate and discussion about all aspects of life in Israel to be enormously unhelpful. That was 25 years ago—no wonder that J-Street has 180,000 supporters and 50 chapters on campus. You may not agree with them, but they exist because there was insufficient room within previously existing organizations for those who wanted to engage more fully with all dimensions of Israel.
Let me be clear—I’m not writing this to express personal support of any one organization or perspective. Rather, I plead for Jewish community to be a place where we can lovingly and respectfully engage with the fullness of Israel. Like my country of origin—the UK—or my country of residence—the USA—there are things that make me feel extraordinarily proud, and there are things that sometimes happen that cause me to feel embarrassment or disappointment. Israel has to be experienced—it is an amazing place. The people are as diverse in background and opinion as any other place. There is so much to learn there. The innovation in science, technology, agriculture, and more is breathtaking. A country that is only 66 years young has developed politically, socially and economically in remarkable ways. And it is still finding its way in some areas—religious pluralism, equality, the place of minority groups in a country that is still fighting for the right to define itself as a Jewish homeland.
What we don’t need is propaganda. We don’t need trips to Israel that pull the blinders over the breadth and complexity of a fully realized, living, breathing modern nation state. We don’t need to silence each other. I do not pretend to offer expertise on the complexities of the political situation and the peace process. It is my job to listen and learn, and to facilitate conversation. It is my job to point out where I observe insightful analysis and information being shared, and where I see ideological lines being drawn in the sand that ultimately help no one. And it is my job to help my student, as she goes off to college, know that there are people and places where she can engage with the fullness of all that Israel is and may still come to be, without feeling shamed or silenced.
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