Discussing Israel can be a challenge among Jews

Can We Talk? September 2011

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

While out for evening walks from time to time, friends Rick Isserman and Khalid Shah like to talk. For two people who have been committed members of interfaith dialogue groups for years, it’s an impulse that comes naturally.

Then there are the times the issue of Israel will come up.

“I’ll say something heated and he’ll respond with something heated but we’ll continue,” said Shah, a Muslim who notes a long friendship smoothes the pair’s divergent opinions. “The basic principle of the value of human life is something we agree on fundamentally.”

But the private conversation doesn’t carry over beyond the one-on-one interaction. That’s intentional.

“When we go into a dialogue group, we both agree that because these are contentious issues, we will not bring them up because they don’t further the value of the dialogue,” said Isserman, a member of Central Reform Congregation.

The choice of avoiding discourse about Israel, however, isn’t always available when Jews are talking among themselves. With Israel front-and-center in Jewish theology, history and culture, it’s almost impossible to imagine a code of conduct that precludes discussion.

Therein lies a powerful issue: When the avoidable in one context becomes the unavoidable in another, how do Jews talk about Israel in a way that is at the least civil, and at best constructive?

When, with whom and under what conditions are supporters of various perspectives willing to air their points and listen to the ideas of others is an issue that can be almost as contentious as the conflict itself. And it’s not so easy – as those interviewed for this story illustrate  – to keep the broader questions discussed in an interfaith context out of the intramural discussions among Jews.

To talk or not?

Rachel Lerner is all for conversation on Israel.

“I think Jews are good talkers,” said Lerner, vice-president of the J Street Education Fund. “(Israel is) not the only contentious issue in the Jewish community but I think that it is one of the most passionate issues and probably one of the hottest issues to discuss.”

But part of Washington-based J Street’s mission has been to expand the context of that discussion. The group, founded in 2008 as a home for politically progressive supporters of the Jewish State, has quickly grown in influence since its inception, and now bills itself as the nation’s largest single pro-Israel political action committee.

Though J Street itself backs a two-state solution and strongly opposes the imposition of boycotts, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel, Lerner said excluding others who might support such ideas from the conversation and putting parameters on dialogue is not necessarily the best course of action. She said that while it may not be rewarding to talk to people in the leadership of the controversial BDS movement, many of the rank-and-file who support the idea more casually are worth engaging.

“Those are people we need to convince. We need to be able to communicate with them and change their minds,” she said. “The broader the conversation, the easier it is to engage people. The narrower we draw the lines, the fewer people we can actually involve. I think that’s to the detriment of the community.”

Within the Jewish community, the organization and its allies are often viewed as being at odds over issues with longstanding pro-Israel organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has a more conservative bent. (AIPAC declined to comment for this story.) And in some cases, J Street has been accused of being supportive of anti-Israel causes.

Lerner remains hopeful of the power of conversation with folks who take a more hawkish position within the Jewish community.

“We disagree on the method to get there but we both want to see an Israel that survives, that’s strong, that thrives and that has long-term viability,” she said. “It’s important that we recognize that in each other but that we also are able to engage in discussion.”

At Los Angeles-based StandWithUs, CEO Roz Rothstein is on the opposite coast from Lerner and while both may favor a strong, secure Israel, it seems clear they are also on opposite coasts of the debate over dialogue. There is no point in engaging in talks with the BDS movement, she said.

“The BDS people mean harm to the Israeli people,” she said. “They want to hurt them and implement collective punishment.”

Like Lerner, Rothstein favors dialogue. But she said that to be effective, that dialogue has to be honest and acknowledge not just the suffering of the Palestinian people but also the horrors of suicide bombings and Gazan rocket attacks.

“You won’t hear those conversations,” she said. “You’ll only hear the hopes and dreams of moving forward without taking into account facts on the ground.”

That one-sidedness often leads to extreme positions, she said, particularly outside of the Jewish community.

“The biggest problem we have is that a lot of the conversations we have are not really conversations,” she said. “They digress into age-old anti-Semitic double standards and allegations. If that were to stop, there would be great conversations, moving-forward conversations.”

But she also noted that often times even Jews are misinformed about the conflict, leading to unrealistic ideas and a dangerous lack of balance in the debate.

“We have to allow for differing opinions. Nobody is a robot,” she said. “What would be helpful and desirable is to come from a place of facts on the ground and information.”

The opinions may run from Lerner to Rothstein and the answers may not be clear but despite the debate over who should be involved in the dialogue, most continue to think there should at least be a dialogue of some kind.

Assaf Grumberg of Belleville, Ill., is a native of the Jewish State. He’s been in this country for over a year as part of a program that sends Israelis here to teach about their homeland. As lunch breaks up at a two-day Midwest Diplomatic Conference for Young Professionals sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grumberg comments that once an organization or person has decided to reject terrorism in favor of negotiation, the opening is there for essential conversation.

“Talking never hurt anyone,” said the affable, soft-spoken Grumberg, 27. “It doesn’t really matter if your opinion is on the left side or the right side of the map. The fact remains that talking is a necessity to our survival in the Middle East.”

Who’s in the tent?

Local voices acknowledge the difficulty of the debate as well. Barry Rosenberg, executive vice-president of the local Jewish Federation said that while the American Jewish community’s commitment to the Jewish State has never been stronger, the diversity of ideas from within that community has never been broader.

“There is increasing diversity in voices regarding how Israel should pursue its future,” he said. “There is, I think, a greater willingness for individuals to express those opinions.”

Rosenberg said the line should only be drawn to exclude those who delegitimize the Jewish State’s place in the world. Those who do so, he said, are “outside the tent.”

“Israel and the Jewish people have a right to exist and pursue self-determination in their own land,” he said. “That’s got to be a fundamental principle that we all agree to. Overwhelmingly, I think the American Jewish community and public believes that.”

Rosenberg feels that a respectful tone, an honest approach and a lack of double standards are what allow dialogue to make progress.

“The Jewish community is wise to understand that diversity of opinion,” he said, “and the validation of an exchange of ideas, done with knowledge, done with civility and done without questioning the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), agrees.

“There are parameters to a community conversation about Israel,” she said. “There are starting out points like a commitment to the safety and security of Israel as a Jewish state and the Jewish people but there has to be an allowance that that may be interpreted differently by different people.”

Abramson-Goldstein’s JCRC has laid down something of a formula for dealing with the issue. Maintain respectful discussion. Avoid vilification of other views. Truly listen to the other side.

Talk burnout?

Even when the rules of discourse are well articulated as Rosenberg and Abramson-Goldstein point out, sometimes there’s just enough weariness to preclude good and effective conservation.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, admits that there is at least some staleness to the debate over Mideast policy.

“People are a little tired,” she said of Israel advocates. “There is a sense of lurching from one potential crisis to the next. It’s hard to keep up the fervor and the passion.”

Yet among those who work on the issue, fervor and passion still remain, sometimes obscuring more moderate voices in an increasingly partisan environment.

“Those who are strong in support of Israel are even stronger. Those who are critical are even more critical,” she said. “It’s hard to find the center. I think in part that’s because people in the center are having a hard time.”

Those trying to find a format for dialogue aren’t having it any easier. Aroesty said ADL used to do various discussions, speakers and Q & A sessions but today such events are rare. People simply don’t have time for them and often prefer to get more information from the Internet instead.

“I’m not sure whether I see platforms for discourse in the same way as we might have presented them five or seven years ago,” she said. “The divisive nature of the issue makes it harder for the events to be truly, broadly educational rather than just a matter of posturing.”

Aroesty said she doesn’t really know what, if anything, will emerge as the magic formula for creating new event-based efforts at dialogue and forums. Every format comes with its own challenges.

“Can they be interfaith and multilayered?” she asked. “Sure, but it becomes even more difficult to moderate that in a way that people come away feeling as if they’ve received significant substance in each of these areas.”

One thing Aroesty seems more certain of however, is her view of the BDS movement. Like Rothstein, she says constructive dialogue is not possible with those who favor a course she calls “utterly negative” and “historically revisionist.”

“Dialogue is not debate,” she said. “BDS is all about debate stance. It’s all about pointing the finger at Israel and saying you are wrong, you are acting badly. It’s assigning blame. Real dialogue is about learning.”

Untying the tent poles

If the debate over whether to include BDS proponents in dialogue is an important one, then it is important to meet Michael Berg.

Berg, a part of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, admits some won’t like what he has to say but he thinks others are supportive. His organization favors such methods as boycotts, divestments and sanctions to bring about an end to the Israeli presence in the West Bank. He condemns terrorism but defines the term as including violent action against non-combatants from both sides.

He is also Jewish.

“It’s horrific what’s being done to people,” said Berg, who grew up in Olivette. “If there’s going to be a dialogue, there’s got to be an understanding of how difficult daily life is living under occupation. That’s essential.”

Berg is well aware of the meta-debate about the actual debate. He says a true conversation on the issue of the Jewish State should include his point of view, though in Jewish circles his perspective is considered outside the mainstream. Still, there is a tinge of pessimism to his remarks.

“I’m not against dialogue but I don’t think dialogue is a solution,” he said. “If you make lines that say I’m willing to listen to you and you have to listen to me but if you go past a certain point, I’m going to shut you out, then that’s not really dialogue.”

The free flow of honest conversation means nobody should be outside the tent, he said.

“If you really want a robust dialogue and you really want people to say their opinions and what they think, you don’t start with ground rules,” he said. “You might say that you have to respect everybody’s right to live but to start with political ground rules is automatically going to stifle the dialogue.”

A much bigger tent?

JCRC and its Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations devote substantial effort to broadening civil discourse and mutual respect across the greater community. (JCRC and the Jewish Community Center collaborate with the Jewish Light on the discussion series portion of Can We Talk?)

Some of the outcomes of these interfaith discussions might provide some helpful perspective for when Jews talk amongst themselves.

“In the beginning I found that it was kind of like the elephant in the room especially when Muslim-Jewish groups were having dialogue,” said Dr. Ghazala Hayat, who has participated in JCRC talks from the Muslim side. “Very early, it’s just like in any relationship people are tiptoeing, walking on eggshells so they don’t hurt anybody.”

Hayat, a local physician from Pakistan who serves as chairman of the Public Affairs Committee of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, said the smallness of the groups, often one-on-one, and the ground rules made the experience rewarding.

“The other person had to tell what they heard because usually what happens is that when somebody starts talking, people start thinking about their own side and shut out what the other side is feeling,” she said.

She said it also helped that the group had built a relationship over a period of time. They weren’t simply strangers.

“If we did not know the people, it would be hard,” she said. “When you are talking or discussing any sensitive issues, you are also looking for non-verbal cues and you may be getting the wrong ones. If I’m comfortable with someone I probably know something of their body language.”

Hayat isn’t from the Mideast but she had the opportunity to visit there as part of an interfaith group in 2007 and said traveling to Israel proved important in forming a better understanding of the situation.

“If you don’t go there, you think the only thing there is hatred but there are Muslims and Jews working together for peace,” she said. “To be honest, I did not know people like that existed. That struck me so much.”

While there, she visited a “model” village where Jews and Arabs lived together. She said one Muslim told her of his young son who saw stones being thrown at Israelis by others his age on television. He also wanted to pelt Jews with stones. When his father pointed out that they lived among Jews, the boy replied that no, those were his friends. He didn’t want to harm the Jews he lived with.

“If you know each other, you start breaking down the walls of hatred,” Hayat said.

That’s certainly been true for Shah and Isserman. Both seem to feel their evening walks have value no matter what topic might come up. It’s a thought that dialoguers everywhere might keep in mind.

“Even when we are very strongly opposed, we actually do listen to each other,” Shah said.

Join us for the ‘Can We Talk?’discussion event Sept. 20 at the JCC

Can We Talk? is a quarterly series from the Jewish Light, JCC and JCRC, pairing stories, op-eds and editorials with community discussion event. This Can We Talk? series focuses on ‘Israel: How Do We Hear One Another,’ and will feature a community discusion event at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at the JCC Arts and Education Building in Creve Coeur. The panel discussion is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are requested through www.stljewishlight.com or to Diane Maier at [email protected] or 314-442-3190. See our ad on page 14 for more infomation.

Visit the Jewish Light’s Facebook page, www.facebook/stljewishlight to respond to questions on this topic posed by Publisher/CEO Larry Levin.

As the Can We Talk? series continues next week, the Jewish Light will feature:

Discussing Israel on campus

• Op-ed from Ha’aretz’s Makom blog by Robbie Gringas on the complexity of discussing Israel among Israelis and members of the diaspora