Why Civil Discourse on Israel Must Become a National Jewish Priority
Address to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs Plenum, February 21, 2010
by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub
I’m so delighted to be on this panel because “how to create civil discourse on Israel” is the question to which I’ve dedicated my life. It’s the reason I created Encounter, the organization I co-direct, which has brought together hundreds of Jewish leaders from a staggering range of religious and political backgrounds: national-religious settlers and anti-occupation activists; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis; lead supporters and staff of AIPAC and J Street, sitting down together in front of the separation barrier and grappling with what it means.
- We are an organization whose very purpose is to catalyze conversation between those who generally don’t talk to one another–let alone with mutual curiosity, listening and respect.
I want to make a case this afternoon for why it is so critical that we, who are here today, walk away committed to healing the heated and often toxic nature of Israel discourse in our community— why all of JCPA’s other battles hinge on the success of this one.
I’ll begin with some stark observations about the current state of affairs, drawn from both research and anecdote, especially conversations with Jewish leaders across the country from the various denominations and sectors of Jewish life.
First, the three most common, current avenues for Israel engagement in the Jewish community:
Avoidance. I was in a room recently with all the national luminaries of the Jewish social justice movement, and every one of them has an organizational policy to avoid Israel. We can’t possibly, they say, build a broad coalition on issues like Darfur, the environment, or poverty, if we touch Israel– that troublesome powder keg, perennial elephant in the room.
Rabbis of every denomination have voiced fear of saying anything in relation Israel. As one of them put it to me recently, I’m not going to get fired for my politics on health care. But I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.
There are many more examples; I suspect each of you could trot out a few.
- The second avenue: Mutual antagonism. Attacks and counter-attacks on OpEd pages and in the blogosphere, egged on by media groups from both right and left primed to spring into action in response to perceived criticism on the one hand or defense on the other of Israeli policy. Ad hominem character assassinations, mutual vilification, reckless caricatures of each other’s positions, counter-accusations of misrepresentation. Unraveled relationships in families, synagogues, local and national institutional Jewish communities.
- The third option, I’ll call collective solipsism (though it really could be called “avoidance 2.0”). And that is Israel-related advocacy and activism that involves congregating, conferencing, and talking exclusively to those with whom we agree. That is, the Jewish people splinters into self-affirming nuclei of our respective organizations, each of them morally superior and self-certain, talking past one another, or now and then colliding in frustration and hostility. We each rally, mobilize and take pride in the numbers of those who are with us, while dismissing those who aren’t as dangerous, ignorant, malicious or loony.
These are the three predominant modes of Israel engagement in American Jewish life.
I want to zoom out for a moment to share a few observations about the nature of social conflict itself— drawing from an extensive literature on conflict, from the abortion storms in America to ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland. Conflict–-dissensus, if you will, about how to move forward about issues of core concern–is neither inherently good nor bad. Whether conflict becomes a constructive or a destructive force depends on how we manage it, and engage with each other in the face of it.
When a community becomes paralyzed in avoidance or hostility – generally a destructive, escalated pattern of conflict has taken hold. In such a pattern, ideological adversaries increasingly present the issue at hand in black-and-white, good-and-evil terms, categorically dismissing those who disagree with them as threatening, extreme, obtuse, or full of hate. Adversaries harden against each other’s genuine integrity and concerns, and social interaction across lines of disagreement grows rare. Ultimately, the illusion is created that there are two and only two opposing sides, in part because voices of complexity, curiosity, and uncertainty grow increasingly intimidated or overshadowed. Over time, as this logic settles, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone, wherever one stands, to engage with the conflict without being pigeon-holed and attacked. At its most extreme, such a destructive spiral begets violence, but generally stops short at censorship, sectarianism and vituperative cross-fire.
Let me “bring down” these observations to the case at hand. What are the costs of falling prey to this pattern, for those advocating for security and peace for Israel, or Israel’s rights and interests?
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it is terribly inexpedient. I won’t dwell here, because I know of all audiences, you get this point. You know advancing our goals requires us to build a broader coalition than polarizing rhetoric will allow. It requires effective engagement of those who are not our most natural allies, knowing where those who disagree with us are coming from, rather than mischaracterizing their motivations and convictions. Those of you who have been on the frontlines of relationship-building with mainline Protestants in response to divestment campaigns know just what I mean.
I want to present two additional costs of polarized, destructive conflict.
The first is that when this logic takes hold, often we destroy our ideals and objectives in the very name of advancing them.
There are many examples I could give here, but for the moment I want to focus on the way our community is tragically shattering Clal Yisrael in the name of serving Clal Yisrael.
The Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies put out two studies that document what many of us have known anecdotally: a sharp decline among Israel engagement and attachment of those under the age of 35.
Their target audience consists of Israel advocacy organizations seeking to assist young Jews on college campuses to defend Israel against its critics. They test the marketing of these organizations with a number of Gen X and Gen Y focus groups. And what they find is pervasive aversion. Israel Advocacy messaging inadvertently turning off the vast majority of Jews under the age of 35.
I would speculate if the study had tested ideologically-loaded marketing of Israel’s critics, they likely would have found the same marked aversion.
They found that young Jews want welcoming, inclusive settings in which to listen, explore, ask hard questions, and decide for them selves what they think in an open exchange of ideas.
Relatedly: They found that young Jews want to be exposed to nuance and diversity of perspective, not black-and-white thinking.
They don’t find this spirit of inclusiveness, multiplicity of opinion and complexity in Jewish institutions, and so they choose the path of disengagement, not only from Israel, but often from the Jewish community altogether.
For me, this is a very personal story -– as 15 years ago I walked away from the Jewish community at the age of 19, (I’m aging myself), in large part over the intolerant and adversarial atmosphere I found in relation to Israel. At the time, I thought my experience was unique, years later discovering I was in fact a caricature of my generation.
We are losing people, and not only the next generation, over our inability to disagree with kavod, honor, as our tradition calls for as its foundational value. We will not serve Israel or the Jewish people if in struggling to advance our rights and interests we do so by attacking, deriding, or silencing our fellow Jews, and alienating those at the gates of the Jewish community who take a look inside and say, “no thank you.”
3. The profound, creative problem-solving we need to confront that many-headed hydra known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only be born in our collective wisdom and reflective diversity – our co-intelligence — not groupthink.
Sociologists have long shown how groupthink leads to defective decision-making: incomplete surveying of alternatives; failure to understand risks of preferred choices and poor and incomplete understanding due to selection bias in collecting information.
In protracted conflicts, all of us–left, right and center–tend to become myopic and reductionist. We come to absorb only that information that confirms our own ingrained thinking. This narrowness leaves no room for innovative new agendas— exploration of paths not yet taken that may advance the interests and values of all.
What happens when we polarize over entrenched political issues? Tactically, morally, intellectually— everyone loses; everyone is undermined.
I want to take a few moments to paint a picture of a different world, one in which dissensus -– disagreement about ways forward –- is generative and constructive rather than damaging.
One great place to turn is the history of conflict transformation efforts on abortion, including some little-known projects from the 90s. From 1993–2000, Search for Common Ground sponsored a project called the Network for Life and Choice, which coordinated dialogues between lead pro-choice and pro-life activists in 20 cities. When an abortion provider was murdered in ‘98 in Buffalo, the Network had already been facilitating dialogues between local pro-choice and pro-life leaders for several years.
These leaders presented a unified response to the murder, not only denouncing violence, but also rejecting any escalatory rhetoric from either side, and declaring the need for working together towards a shared long-term platform. Within a few months, they presented a “New Way” agenda, which called for pro-life and pro-choice activists to work together on a series of issues including preventing teen pregnancy, promoting male and female sexual responsibility, and fostering respect and equality for women.
The declaration received national media attention and galvanized increased local solidarity for rejecting violence and demonization across the country. Establishing transformative dialogue across ideological lines had turned the community into one not only unwilling to allow a tragic act of aggression to initiate the familiar, degenerative conflict cycle, but also dedicated to working constructively and collaboratively in search of innovative solutions.
Through the Network for Life and Choice and other similar dialogues, pro-life and pro-choice activists were able to create broad coalitions that advanced common agendas in areas in which they already had overlapping consensus, towards new creative ideas they would not have considered but for their learning from one another. And while they also continued vigorously to pursue opposing policy agendas, they began to sustain their highest ideals– dignity, life, freedom, the very things they were fighting for– in the means and spirit of the fight.
Similarly, through my work with Encounter, I’ve seen that when left, right, and center come together in respectful, honest conversation about Israel– they do not walk away in agreement. But their dissensus generally becomes a generative, productive force. Those who care deeply about Israel from different perspectives become more effective and innovative in pursuing their deepest ideals, whether Clal Yisrael, human dignity, security, peace, justice, or life. (I’d be happy to give more concrete examples in the Q and A, but I want to wrap up).
I have focused my comments this afternoon on WHY cultivating civil discourse should be an urgent concern for us, rather than on HOW to do so.
We are lucky to get to hear from Doug Kahn in a moment, who has built one of the most successful templates for how to begin to transform a communal conversation about Israel— a model that thankfully will soon be scaled up in the Bay Area and I hope will be replicated across the country.
I also want to plug a workshop I’m co-facilitating with Batya Abramson-Goldstein of St. Louis tomorrow that will deal with practical building blocks for building a campaign for civil discourse in your community. In case you can’t come tomorrow, I have on hand a hand-out with a few resources and suggestions that you’re welcome to take.
In closing, I want to lay out one general principle about HOW we do this.
One approach to civility pursues what sociologist of conflict Eyal Rabinovitch calls a “containment paradigm.” This is a model that pursues a series of “don’t” rules, a kind of el taaseh code, in the language of halakha. Some “don’t” rules are important. Don’t bully, harass, or threaten others. Don’t engage in any of the various forms of defamation: untruths, half-truths, unsubstantiated attacks, selective misrepresentation of those with whom you have differences of opinion. Don’t attack personalities rather than positions. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person. Etc.
But in this paradigm, we tend to go on viewing each other in a polarized manner— but are asked to be polite and “play nice” in doing so. Worse, we may even be asked to suppress our own thinking, elide our differences of opinion, rather than engage our differences and learn from them. This paradigm tends to respond reactively to the symptoms of polarization, without addressing the underlying problem, which requires deeper, more pro-active and ongoing engagement.
What does that deeper engagement look like? Rabinovitch calls it a “wholeness paradigm.” This paradigm focuses not on what not to do, but rather on pro-actively building an infrastructure that will allow us to dive into our differences and reach towards something new. We are invited to explore and seek to understand everyone’s views and values — with vigor and without restraint – in pursuit of the most intelligent solutions to issues of passionate, common concern. We will likely choose, through such a process, some common agendas as well as some divergent agendas to pursue alongside each other. In either case, we are taught to do so in a way that sustains affirmation of each other’s integrity and kavod, honor, even when–especially when– our disagreements are sharp and the stakes are high.
At Encounter, we are building a living expression of this “wholeness paradigm”— because we believe the ways the Jewish community is and isn’t currently talking about Israel is preventing us from having the kind of vibrantly alive culture of learning and creative problem-solving we need to survive and thrive as a people– and be compelling to the next generation— let alone to respond to the challenges Israel confronts, effectively.
It is my hope that every person in this room will join us and the JCPA in making civil discourse on Israel a top national and local priority. Nothing less than the Jewish people is at stake.
Video Recording from November 1, 2010:
A panel of Jewish leaders endorse a “Statement on Civility” proposed by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, with Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Steve Gutow, and others. Shalom TV exclusive from UJA-Federation headquarters in NYC.