St. Louis Jewish leaders aim to spur respectful dialogue on Israel

Screenshot of “Coming Together, Coming Apart: Candid Conversations About Israel, Jewish Values and the Future of Judaism” featuring (clockwise from top left) Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Rabbi Carnie Rose, Rabbi Daniel Bogard and Rabbi Jim Bennett.

When Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, doesn’t uphold the narrative that Israel is perfect and expresses a struggle with something happening there, “is when I feel criticized. If we say that struggle, we are not Zionist enough, we are not Jewish enough, we don’t deserve our jobs, we can’t be Jewish communal professionals — when I actually feel like that struggle is the deepest connection to Israel I can imagine,” she said recently during a virtual panel discussion with three local rabbis.

“Isn’t that the reason we are doing this, doing this webinar?” asked Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “Our own humility is so lacking because we are sure we are right…or the other’s perspective is so wrong. We’re so sure that we can’t recognize that there is some balance.”

Bennett was referring to a new four-part series of virtual discussions titled “Coming Together, Coming Apart: Candid Conversations About Israel, Jewish Values and the Future of Judaism” featuring Picker Neiss, Bennett and rabbis from Central Reform Congregation and Congregation B’nai Amoona.

The four Jewish leaders had also spent time as fellows at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in a program, which aims to train Jewish thought leaders to address “the critical questions facing North American Jewry today,” according to its website.

“Of course the Jewish world has internal fissures, but we feel that there is more that unites us than divides us, and so we thought that it would be good for us to model that and to model collegiality, to model the ability to hear differences,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona.

The four leaders had been working to convene such a panel for a long time, they said, but were finally able to make it happen in a virtual setting. Hundreds of people tuned in to the first two sessions on Tuesdays from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

During the Aug. 11 event, the panelists all expressed support for Israel — and a willingness to criticize it.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Central Reform said that he doesn’t view being Jewish as a choice, something he “opt out of,” and the “same is true of my relationship with the state of Israel, it doesn’t matter how Israel behaves or doesn’t, as a Jew who doesn’t feel that he can opt out of it, I don’t feel that I can opt out of my ethical responsibility there.”

Bennett described the four participants as “left of center” on the ideological spectrum towards Israel and people who are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, but that “we are role modeling how we can talk about issues from multiple angles and do so respectfully, as opposed to so often, when people who come from left of center regarding Israel speak publicly, they are accused by the far-right of being traitors.”

But if the four participants all come from roughly the same place, then how does that change the conversation around Israel?

In explaining why they wanted to organize the panel, the two Reform rabbis, Bogard and Bennett, both referred to the local event last year featuring Israel Defense Forces veterans with Breaking the Silence, a group that uses testimonies from former soldiers to raise awareness of what they describe as abuse of the Palestinian population. People in the audience at B’nai Amoona yelled throughout the event and called the former soldiers “liars.”

“Instead of civil dialogue, what happened was that people got shouted down. So what we are trying to do first is establish a baseline for civil dialogue. Maybe the next step will be that we can bring people from the farther left or the farther right,” said Bennett.

More respectful disagreements could emerge during the third discussion planned for Tuesday afternoon. The topic? Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism.