People in conversation

Israel Need Not Be Third Rail

Yesterday, the New York Times printed an article entitled "On Israel, Jews and Leaders Often Disagree," which began with the following characterization: "Criticizing Israel has long been the equivalent of touching the third rail in many Jewish families and friendships, relegating disagreements to a conversational demilitarized zone where only the innocent and foolhardy go." This hit home with me for a number of personal and professional reasons.

Five years ago, I remember calling my parents to tell them I'd be facilitating a retreat for a small Cambridge temple congregation that was divided around the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their response was unexpectedly reserved, which took me aback, as they have both been deeply involved in their temple (my father having served several terms as Temple president, my mother having taught religious school and headed the youth program) and in the greater Buffalo Jewish community. When I inquired further, my mother said "we don't talk with our friends about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyone knows where each of us stands on the issue and we value our friendships, so we don't discuss it."

Their choice to preserve friendships and therefore avoid discussing the issue is not uncommon. The alternative can be quite ugly and result in personal attacks, accusations, and shunning/discounting of those with differing points of view. This is personally painful and almost incomprehensible, as I grew up understanding that two Jews frequently meant a minimum of two different opinions on any issue. The essence of Judaism, for me, involved the idea that people often disagreed with one another's points of view, even deeply held ideas—but did so in a respectful, civil, collaborative manner that sought to explore issues in greater complexity, for deeper understanding.Sadly, this does not apply within the broader Jewish community in regard to the issue of Israel for many of us over the age of 35.  While the younger generation has dramatically different, much more complex and nuanced views regarding Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Times article suggests, it's extremely challenging for middle-aged and older Jews to talk constructively about this issue.

Challenging, yes. But not impossible, as my PCP work has demonstrated during the past five years. Dialogue can open a door for Jews through which they can enter into deeper, more meaningful exploration and connection with each other.  It's not an easy process and frequently involves participants who struggle, initially feeling overly polite in their concern not to offend others. It takes some practice to figure out how to pose those questions to others, to become aware of and reflect on one's own deeper questions and complexities. 

For me, however, there has been no more rewarding work than my involvement with my fellow Jews who are working to create a space for such conversations. Essential Partners recently trained fifteen Temple Emanuel (Newton, MA) members as dialogue facilitators for their congregation, upon the request of Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, whose invitation for participation said it all:

"We come from a religious tradition whose very signature is a quality we have lost, and we have lost it at the worst possible time: the ability to have a respectful conversation on a matter of principle that we care deeply about with somebody with whom we fundamentally disagree. If we can recover that lost art, we will recover something that authentically defines us as Jews. We will build relationships with one another. We will take each other out of the boxes and pigeon holes in which we place one another. And when Israel needs our voice, we might just be able to summon it together."

Dave Joseph, MSW, is a Senior Associate at Essential Partners, having served as Director of Programs from 2005-2017.