JCRC leader: We should embrace diverse Jewish voices in discussions about Israel

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day in 2013 by waving flags as they walk to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  File photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

By Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss

There is no one way to be pro-Israel. 

Our Jewish community maintains a strong, passionate, active, and engaged relationship with the State of Israel. How that should manifest, the values we should espouse, the goals we should work toward, the policies we should advocate—whether we should advocate for policies at all—is a source of debate throughout our community. 

There are no simple answers to any of these questions. And there is no single answer. 

As an American Jewish community, we have come to embrace our reality that there is no one way to express our Judaism, no one way to connect with spirituality, no one way to engage in the modern world, no one way to vote in American politics. So, too, we must learn to broaden our definitions to encompass the myriad of ways that people today choose to involve themselves with Israel. 

Indeed, there are those who champion an end to the State of Israel. There are physical threats that face Israel each day from military and civilian entities. Those we must fight. Yet, to add to that list those who criticize Israel out of love and passion for her to live out her best values delegitimizes real threats and undermines our fundamental values of democracy. 

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Moreover, pushing those individuals outside the tent of the “Pro-Israel” community does not garner stronger support for Israel, but instead makes people less engaged in the Jewish community. 

The uncomfortable truth is that while Israel used to be the unifying factor of our community, now it threatens to divide us. As renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen recently wrote: “Instead of the near-unanimous support Jews once gave Israel’s elected leaders, both left-leaning and right-leaning American Jewish activists regularly cross swords with Israelis and each other, sometimes in ways that can get personal and nasty. American Jewish opinion toward Israel today is fractured and will only, it seems, continue to fracture.” 

This division will have devastating repercussions for Israel, on the American relationship with Israel, and on engagement in the Jewish community overall.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War. This war of defense, sparked by the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and the ensuing victory and reunification of Jerusalem represent to some in our community a miracle on par with those we commemorate on Hanukkah and Purim. For others, it is proof of the first flowerings of messianic redemption. And for others, it represents the genesis of an internal conflict between support for the Jewish State and the democratic ideals it espouses with perceptions of how the state has managed its military control over the territories rightfully captured as a defensive move during the Six-Day War.

For each of these individuals, their views stem from a deep and profound love for Israel.

The Jewish Community Relations Council is committed to fostering respectful discourse and open spaces within which disparate voices in our community may be heard. We believe it is through disagreement and dissent that we garner greater understanding and overcome obstacles in order to work together to ensure that Israel remains Jewish, just, democratic, and secure. 

To that end, last year the JCRC received a generous strategic grant from the Jewish Federation of St Louis to do just that. Over the course of this jubilee year, we will be running community programs and distributing micro-grants to empower others in St Louis to create their own programming with the goal of fostering dialogue around Israel and the half-century that has elapsed since 1967. We hope that this will produce a multitude of dynamic and diverse programs to captivate the entire community. 

The pluralism of voices in our community with regard to Israel is one of our greatest strengths. In our rapidly changing world, we cannot afford to take any of those strengths for granted.