Back to Resources

The Need for Civil Discourse

by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub | Published on February 21, 2010

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:

  1. 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. 

  2. 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.
  3. 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

Share This

Our Mission

Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

Read More

Contact Encounter

Encounter welcomes all your ques­tions, comments, stories, and queries.

For general inquiries, including upcoming program infor­ma­tion and dates, please write to:


– or –

Visit our Contact Us Page