Causeless Hatred: Why American Jews Can’t Talk to Each Other about Israel

by Karla Goldman

Jews may be renowned for their love of argument, but today’s American Jewish community seems almost incapable of productive discussion regarding disagreements over Israel.

Both impassioned supporters and virulent critics of Israel – moved by stark, if justifiable, fears – too often refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any position but their own. The resulting inability of American Jews to hear each other across ideological difference narrows discourse, stifles institutional independence, and weakens Jewish community and communal influence.

The Jewish calendar offers a useful summer reminder of the dangerous consequences of demonizing others in one’s own community. The Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av in 70 C.E. Observant Jews continue to mark this event and myriad other historical calamities which occurred on this same date with the fast day of Tisha B’av which falls this year on July 20.

Jewish tradition ascribes the second Temple’s destruction not to the Romans who actually torched Jerusalem, but to the “causeless hatred” (sinat chinam) which prevailed among the Jews within its walls. Spite, scorn, and cruelty among Jews opened the way for others to destroy the Temple, decimate and scatter Judea’s Jewish population, and end any meaningful national Jewish identity until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

As American Jews grapple with Israel’s current existential challenges, it seems an apt time to reflect upon the lessons of sinat chinam.

American Jews respond with a broad range of opinions and emotions to the policies of the Israeli government regarding a whole host of issues, including treatment of its Arab citizens and residents, and its military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza. There is likewise a diverse spectrum of feeling among American Jews about the role that the U.S. government and its leaders should play in working for a more peaceful Middle East.

Despite this undeniable range of viewpoints, public (and often, private) discussions about Israel veer inexorably to polemical extremes and an insistence that there can be only one legitimate Jewish voice on these subjects. Many who support Israel reflexively dismiss critics of Israeli policies as appeasers who condone terrorism and seek the destruction of the Jewish state. No less disturbing is the readiness of many on the Left to condemn support for Israel as an embrace of racism, Nazism, and Apartheidism.

The resulting bifurcation leaves little room to come to terms with the complexities and nuances that in fact define the politics and realties of the contemporary Middle East. Moreover, it leaves many thousands of American Jews, who combine committed support for Israel with deep unease over numerous Israeli policies, feeling defensive, alienated, and silenced. Vulnerable to attack either as coddlers of terrorists or as defenders of a racist state, many who yearn for productive engagement end up distancing themselves from the whole subject. Most chillingly, this kind of vituperative “us” or “them” discourse inevitably estranges thoughtful younger Jews – the very group the established Jewish community so desperately wants to engage.

There is nothing wrong with the fierceness that animates American Jewish feelings about Israel. Some believe that the weight of Jewish history mandates an undeviating commitment to Israeli security whatever the cost. Others insist that historic victims of persecution can never justify complicity in the oppression of others. Convictions such as these, however, translate too easily into impenetrable moral absolutes.

It is telling that Tisha B’av, a day dedicated to remembering the destruction of Jewish communities across time, points us to the danger that comes in failing to see and respect the humanity of those with whom we disagree. If American Jews are to make any meaningful contribution to forwarding a peace process, that contribution is unlikely to be built upon assertions either of Israel’s unassailable virtue or its essential wickedness. More likely, it will come by attuning American and world leaders to the complexities of a situation that cannot be resolved without sacrifice, risk, and compromise on all sides.

As a start, this year’s Tisha B’Av offers an opportunity to fast, to reflect upon what is at stake, and to consider what could be learned from those with whom we disagree. If vilification and demonization are allowed to silence all but the most extreme voices in the American Jewish community, then sinat chinam, causeless hatred, will prevail once again, undermining Jewish community and possibility, and any hopes for peace.

Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Director of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. She previously served as historian-in-residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive and taught American Jewish history on the faculty of Hebrew Union-College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.