An Unsettling Jewish Environment

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

At times over the past number of years a McCarthy-like atmosphere has existed within the Jewish world. An environment of distrust and anger has defined the Jewish landscape involving discussions on Israel and its policies. On a number of occasions, name-calling, labeling, and the marginalizing of groups has replaced a focus on policy discussions concerning Israel and its future. Yet, the events covering the past several weeks involving the Government of Israel’s proposal to alter the national definition of the Jewish State provides an opportunity to create a new framework for a Diaspora-Israel conversation.

Who defines the attributes of being a “friend and partner of the Jewish State”? The Jewish political right within the United States has questioned in the past the legitimacy of its counterpoint, the political left, arguing that the activist efforts of those who seek to press Israel to pursue negotiations with Palestinians, to cease settlement construction, or to define the Jewish or Zionist character of the State are operating outside of the boundaries of acceptable and responsible discourse. Do individuals and groups, operating outside of the Jewish state, have the right to define its political and security agenda or question its policy options? The Jewish political right would contend that such policy matters ought to be left to the government and citizens of the State of Israel.

The Jewish left has charged that the actions and statements of its opponents on the right are designed to limit, or worse, drive out political dissent. They describe the current environment as one where only “politically-correct responses” are entertained. A “loyalty-test” they would argue currently defines the conversation around Israel. Operating outside of this acceptable frame, liberal groups and their supporters are labeled as being “disloyal” to the Jewish enterprise.

The left has contended that Israel is the living expression of the Jewish body politic, and as such, Jews collectively have a stake in its policies and decisions whether they reside within the state or not. As caring citizens of the world with a particular allegiance to the welfare of the Jewish people and its national aspirations, they believe that they are entitled to speak to such matters impacting the character and content of the state.

The Jewish left, in turn, has been accused by its opponents as being morally righteous in its stance, viewing its positions as beyond reproach. “Name calling” and “labeling” are charges not limited to the right, as some in the peace camp have been accused of minimizing their opponents, by dismissing their credentials or affiliation, thereby creating guilt by association. Some on the Jewish right view the “intellectual snobbery” of those within the left as being dismissive, ruling out of hand their opponents’ perspectives.

This past May the vote conducted by the Conference of Presidents regarding the admission of J Street to its ranks would further accelerate this debate concerning the quality and the status of Jewish conversations being held by Jews around the question of Israel as well as the broader issue of “who speaks for American Jewry?”

It is not uncommon to identify such controversies within groups, especially when they are embroiled in matters essential to the welfare of a community. Contentious debate seems to be a theme embedded as well within Jewish tradition and practice. Over the centuries historic models of Jewish “stiffneckedness” have contributed to tensions among Jews, who in some measure have relished the opportunity to inquire and to question religious ideas and socio-political policies.

Yet interestingly, the history of Jewish religious debate has incorporated the notion of posting the “majority” viewpoint while also including the “minority” position, and in the process acknowledging the merits of both arguments. Indeed, while Judaism imposed “herem” (censure) where a Jew, because of his/her actions or ideas, may be placed outside of the boundaries of the community, such a device was generally employed only over theological and religious questions.

Engaging in a dialogue constructed around competing ideas symbolizes the political maturity of a community. Those who have studied the elements of argumentation have suggested that before demeaning one’s opponents, it is essential to “enter into their place” in order to understand their motivations, arguments, history and fears. Passion is commendable but when one demonizes his/her opponent, there is often no room for constructive discourse or compromise. “Triumphalism” in Jewish history, where one group adopts a position of supremacy over an opponent’s argument, has been particularly problematic and often destructive.

In comparison to other groups and nationalities, Jews can be seen as new to the political power game, despite the fact that as a people our community has always had a fascination and investment with politics and power. Achieving any degree of political power would be at best a 19th century phenomenon as part of the Jewish encounter with the Enlightenment, yet only in the 20th century would their political status be enhanced with the creation of a national Jewish State.

Small political constituencies, in particular, have limited access to centers of power, and more directly, often have fewer opportunities to articulate their core interests. A divided constituency and a dysfunctional polity can paralyze its effectiveness on the political stage. The luxury of a “divided house” does not represent a prescription for Jewish security. Yet, a thoughtful and essential conversation on Israel is needed, so that both the supporters and opponents of the contemporary political condition can be invited to participate. One finds in various American Jewish communities civility codes and other forms of constructive action being introduced as a way to promote a productive public discourse. The politics of consensus represents an operative model, replacing a condition of political discord and distrust.

Israel itself must constantly contend with its own political “machloket” (disagreements or controversies). In the past Israel has creatively brought opposing factions together, at times in coalition governments and on other occasions, by creating opportunities across the country for a “big tent” conversation to occur, where ideological opponents are invited to sit with one another to explore their differences and to examine areas of commonality. On other occasions, Israel’s court system has opened new venues of access and public expression. Today there are threats to the quality and depth of civil discourse within Israel itself, as some are seeking to deny the opportunity and rights of groups to dissent or oppose the political positions of the government. In this current setting, Israel’s political elites must encourage and create an environment of political access, dialogue, and debate.

A shared discussion, especially around the definition and character of the State of Israel, is essential to the our community and for the general welfare of the Jewish people, just as it demonstrates the democratic credentials of Israel and its Diaspora communities.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. This article is linked to his most recent book, “The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice.” See www.theWindreport for a list of other articles written by Dr. Windmueller.