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Moment: Opinion from the Editor

by Nadine Epstein
Published on February 11, 2011 in Moment Magazine

For several years now I have observed what I call the “Not in Mixed Company” syndrome, that pesky inability to talk about Israel in mixed company. By mixed company I don’t mean Arabs and Jews or Jews and Christians, but Jews and Jews. Beyond the comfort­able confines of a few select venues where it is under­stood that everyone agrees with one another, talking about Israel in orga­ni­za­tional, public or even private settings has become fraught with acknowl­edged and unac­knowl­edged complex­i­ties. Jew-to-Jew, Israel is a deeply polar­izing subject. 

Troubled by this trend, Moment Magazine teamed up with the journal Sh’ma with the support of the Foundation for Jewish Culture to sponsor a discus­sion at the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2010 General Assembly (GA) to examine its mani­fes­ta­tions, causes and possible conse­quences. We invited four panelists who had also noticed the phenom­enon, each with a different perspec­tive on the subject. 

The panel took place in New Orleans, but the recent travails of San Francisco’s Jewish commu­nity quickly came up. In 2009 the local film festival, supported by a small contri­bu­tion from the Federation, showed the film Rachel, about the 23-year-old Palestinian rights activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 by an IDF bull­dozer while acting as a human shield in Gaza. The Jewish commu­nity split into angry camps over whether the film should have been shown, recalled panelist Douglas Kahn, a rabbi and exec­u­tive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, inten­si­fying sensi­tiv­i­ties to the point that civil discus­sion about Israel was impossible. 

The polar­iza­tion spilled over to JCCs, Hillels and even day schools, where parents wrapped up in their ideo­log­ical views fought over how Israel should or should not be addressed within curricula. Synagogues were caught up in the uproar as well: “Rabbis came to me and told me that they could talk about any issue in the world from the pulpit, such as immi­gra­tion reform or health­care reform, without losing their jobs,” said Kahn, “but their percep­tion was, rightly or wrongly, that if they take a certain stance on Israel, one way or the other, it might anger a segment of their commu­nity and they might lose their jobs.” The furor led to the frac­turing of insti­tu­tions and the silencing of moderate voices: The most vocal people with deeply held beliefs prevented others from expressing their views. “The resources required to address intra-Jewish fighting today are taking away resources from fighting the real chal­lenges that our commu­nity faces, including real detrac­tors of Israel,” said Kahn. In the end, he added, “Israel is the big loser.” 

Another example of the “Not in Mixed Company” syndrome came from Robert Rifkind, a Manhattan attorney who is a board member of several pres­ti­gious Jewish orga­ni­za­tions and a former pres­i­dent of the American Jewish Committee. He spoke of a recent event run by The Jewish Week, during which a group of enthu­si­astic and engaged young Jews studiously avoided the topic of Israel. “We don’t discuss Israel because we have found that that discus­sion is uncom­fort­able,” one 30-something announced. “You can’t have a free, candid, unin­hib­ited discus­sion, and there­fore we don’t discuss it at all.” Rifkind related another expe­ri­ence at a major orga­ni­za­tion in which he is active, where he suggested that the board circu­late a summary of edito­rial opin­ions on Israel to its members to stim­u­late discus­sion. The chairman of the board responded: “Oh, Bob, we can’t do that here. Others will hear us talk.” 

The problem is that we create an “atmos­phere in which frank, produc­tive conver­sa­tion cannot take place of the prob­lems facing Israel and American advo­cacy with respect to Israel,” he said. All we are left with is “the endless reit­er­a­tion of narra­tive, what becomes a liturgy.”

After years of shouting at one another, people are exhausted by the Arab-Israel conflict, explained Pulitzer Prize-winning, former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Glenn Frankel. Frankel recently left a teaching post at Stanford University to become the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. “I actu­ally don’t hear a whole lot about Israel or the Arab-Israel dispute anymore,” he said. “Both at Stanford, where I taught the last four years, and now University of Texas, people can be very passionate about a lot of issues—human rights, Darfur, the Guantanamo detainees, the fate of Africa, the war in Iraq, Lindsay Lohan’s latest bout of rehab, but when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, it’s my obser­va­tion that there is mostly an awkward silence.”

The rare excep­tion is an occa­sional “elec­trical storm” over an inflam­ma­tory speaker claiming, for example, that Israel is an apartheid state. (“Frankly, most of the students I run into don’t know what apartheid is, let alone whether Israel could or could not be in any sense consid­ered an apartheid state,” he added.) On the upside, the silence around Israel may signify that people think of it as just a normal country like Denmark or Portugal. “We don’t get worked up over Denmark and Portugal because they are perma­nent fixtures, not much to get excited about even when they screw up as they occa­sion­ally do,” he said.
But Frankel argued that some­thing more worri­some is at play: Israel’s lack of normalcy has become busi­ness as usual. “When people think of Israel, by and large, they think of siege,” he said. “Nothing’s changing, no progress, no solu­tion, ongoing state of war, sort of like an endless police blotter. As any jour­nalist can tell you, people get bored and they begin to lose interest. There’s a sort of moral exhaus­tion. From my partic­ular perspec­tive, the prob­lems within the Jewish commu­nity in talking about Israel are mirrored by the vast silence from the outside.”

Another panelist, Melissa Weintraub, is the co-founder and exec­u­tive director of Encounter, a group dedi­cated in part to trying to heal the internal rifts that have formed in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The radioac­tivity of Israel in the Jewish commu­nity bears all the marks of other forms of polar­ized social conflict,” she stressed. The illu­sion that there are two and only two opposing sides is created in part because voices of complexity, nuance, curiosity and uncer­tainty are increas­ingly intim­i­dated or over­shad­owed by the loudest, angriest and most vocif­erous voices of any perspec­tive. “We’re losing a lot as a commu­nity because of this pattern,” she said. “We’re turning off people who stand at the gates of the Jewish commu­nity, looking inside and saying ‘not for me,’ and we’re losing the creative problem solving that comes from mining everyone’s collec­tive wisdom.”

Weintraub, a rabbi, spoke of a gener­a­tional shift: Young Jews are turned off by black and white thinking and long for open, welcoming settings for conver­sa­tions that allow them to decide what they think for them­selves. “They crave non-politicized educa­tion about core polit­ical issues” in a sophis­ti­cated frame­work that exposes them to multiple points of view, she said. “They are disen­gaging from Israel because of a perceived discon­nect between the hard ques­tions on their minds and the mythic, pris­tine Israel of main­stream America.”

As it turns out, much of the audi­ence of about 125 were students, who throughout the question-and-answer period wondered how to deal with fellow students on either “side” who make open discus­sion impos­sible. How could they create an atmos­phere for open conver­sa­tion, they asked. Some advice was offered—a subject for a future column—but it became clear that given American Jews’ inti­mate and emotional connec­tion to Israel, whether as staunch defenders or critics, the topic deserved more discussion.

At the end, a man came up to say that he was moved by the authen­ticity and civility of the discus­sion and that this had been one of the most inter­esting panels he had attended at a GA. As he spoke, he was pushed aside by a woman who snarled: “This was the most anti-Israel discus­sion I have ever heard.” I asked her why she hadn’t spoken up earlier. “Why should I?” she responded angrily. “You would never listen to me.”

She turned away and walked out, which was sad, because I would have listened. It is Moment’s mission not to take sides, but to draw out the complex­i­ties and nuances along a spec­trum of views. We strive for this at our events, in our blog and newsletter and in the maga­zine itself. In this issue we feature one of the most divi­sive symbols in contem­po­rary America—the Ten Commandments—and ask if they are rele­vant today. You will find two provoca­tive collec­tions of view­points in response to this ques­tion, one in the Ask the Rabbi section, the other in a sympo­sium featuring promi­nent Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu perspec­tives. In Film Watch, we also include an analysis of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film, The Ten Commandments and its lasting influ­ence on American polit­ical culture. 

Moment goes right to the heart of another contro­versy in our profile of the head of Israel’s settler move­ment, Yesha Council chairman Dani Dayan, and his success at keeping the settle­ment freeze from being extended and peace talks off the table. In this issue, we also present the third in our series on Israel’s Arab citi­zens: This install­ment explores the economic gap between Jews and Arabs and what is being done about it. As usual, our columns display a broad swath of the discus­sion about Jewish issues. There are light-hearted moments too, such as a look at the origins of the Jewfro, an expo­si­tion on the glories of Jewish French cooking and much more. Happy New Year! 

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