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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.

Why?

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.

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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.

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