End the Polemics and Restore Dialogue to the Jewish Community

by Avi Herring

Over the past several decades, two of the pillars of American Jewish communal consensus – fighting anti-Semitism and supporting Israel unconditionally – have crumbled. But instead of exploring why our consensus has fallen apart and working together to find new areas of agreement, we often hurl offensive polemics against one another. What little structured Jewish communal conversation that exists is descending into dysfunction.

There are many reasons why the communal consensus has broken down. First, most American Jews do not experience anti-Semitism or, if they do, it is an insignificant part of their lives. Second, Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the increasingly anti-liberal laws coming out of its parliament are alienating some American Jews, who have built their Jewish identities on the intersection of Judaism and liberalism. Third, we are a microcosm of general American society, where liberals and conservatives have made constructive discourse more rare by the moment. And finally, different generations see the issues of anti-Semitism and Israel through the lenses of their own life experiences.

As the consensus has broken down, we have become increasingly unable to discuss serious issues, instead polemicizing – either for or against – the communal consensus that once was. Young and old, “universalist” and “particularist” and left and right have all engaged in this behavior.

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Consider three examples from the past several months. The first is Alan Dershowitz’s recent article in The Jerusalem Post, entitled “Why anti-Semitism is moving toward the Mainstream.” The main thrust of Dershowitz’s article is indeed worrisome – he notes that a virulently anti-Semitic academic named Gilad Atzmon has recently received endorsements from leading American professors for a new book that takes seriously the claim that “the Jewish people are trying to control the world,” and that Ron Paul, who continues to enjoy significant support in the Republican Party, refuses to repudiate the anti-Semitic and racist bases of his support.

The problem, though, is that Dershowitz doesn’t stop there. He then makes a comparison to pre-war Nazi Germany, writing that “[w]hen Nazi anti-Semitism began to achieve mainstream legitimacy in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, it was not because Hitler, Goebbels and Goering were espousing it. Their repulsive views had been known for years. It was because non-Nazis – especially prominent academics, politicians and artists – were refusing to condemn anti-Semitism and those who espoused it.”

The phenomena of Atzmon and Paul are troublesome developments and require us to examine whether anti-Semitism is worsening in the United States. But the almost offhanded suggested comparison between the United States in 2012 and Nazi Germany in the 1930s is both offensive and inaccurate. Dershowitz could have proposed that we examine trends in anti-Semitism in the United States during the past, say, ten years, or he could have even proposed a comparison between anti-Semitism in the United States today and in the decades after 1880 (the latter being a period of significant social anti-Semitism in the United States). But to casually draw a comparison between anti- Semitism today in the United States and in Nazi Germany, without providing any justification, immediately obscures what was otherwise a well-thought out observation. And it makes it very difficult for me, and I suspect many other engaged Jews who are passionate about the Jewish future, to take him seriously.

Example number two is the recent uproar over a proposed AVODAH: Jewish Service Corp trip to Israel. As a bit of background, AVODAH is an American Jewish service-learning program for young adults that focuses on domestic social justice issues through a Jewish lens. Participants engage in service and community building in cities throughout the United States, and they also undertake intensive study of Judaism and social justice.

Recently, the Schusterman Foundation offered to fund an Israel trip for AVODAH alumni to explore social justice issues in Israel. To be clear, the proposal brought up difficult questions for AVODAH. For example, would the trip visit Israeli occupied areas of the West Bank, where some of the most devastating breaches of social justice are occurring? Just as significantly, AVODAH is an American Jewish social justice organization, and it is often considered a refuge for engaged Jews who are not Zionist. Would an Israel trip force this population out of AVODAH?

These are important questions that could have led to productive dialogue about the role of Israel in American Jewish social justice work. In particular, for a liberal group like AVODAH, how can one balance a focus on serious human rights abuses in the West Bank without viewing Israel exclusively through the “lens of occupation,” which distorts other issues of social justice that have nothing to do with the Palestinians. And of course, does offering an Israel trip in the first place represent “mission drift” from AVODAH’s organizational goals?

Unfortunately, instead of having the discussion, AVODAH alumni, and even one staff member, revolted. Before knowing anything about the trip’s itinerary (except that it would be run by the JDC, which has not historically offered trips in the West Bank), alumni circulated an open letter stating that:

“It is grossly irresponsible for AVODAH to whitewash Israeli policies while still claiming to stand for social justice. This recent decision [to organize an Israel trip] – made without any community input – is part of a systematic marginalization of alternative voices within the institutional Jewish community. While AVODAH was previously a space where all political viewpoints on Israel-Palestine were welcome, the organization may now alienate a growing generation of Jews who see Israeli policy as inconsistent with Jewish social justice values. In sponsoring this trip, AVODAH has taken a political stance on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, violating its own commitment to pluralism. The letter then demanded that AVODAH “never sponsor another Israel trip in this way again.” With such sweeping – and I would argue, arrogant, language – AVODAH alumni missed a chance to engage with the organization and each other about the complicated role of Israel in liberal American Jewish life.”

It would be easiest to attribute these clashes solely to generational differences. But while inter-generational disagreement, especially surrounding Israel, is one important factor, the polemics do not always fall along generational lines. Consider the controversy over Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ appointment as head of the Union of Reform Judaism. A group of Reform Jews calling itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership took out ads in Jewish newspapers accusing Jacobs of being anti-Israel because he is a supporter of the New Israel Fund and JStreet, both liberal Zionist groups. Instead of engaging in a constructive dialogue with Jacobs and other Reform leaders about appropriate boundaries for public criticism of Israel and about boundaries of Zionism, Jews against Divisive Leadership spewed hateful rhetoric against a person who has spoken out publicly about his love for Israel, has made Israel a major part of his rabbinate, and who owns a home in Israel.

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The answer to our dysfunctional discourse is not to paper over our differences and pretend to agree with one another. Rather, we need increased, honest engagement – between young and old, “universalists” and “particularists,” right and left, and all of those who do not fit under a label. Talking more will not necessarily lead to increased consensus, but it has the potential to strengthen mutual understanding.

As a snapshot into what communal dialogue could look like, I invite you to a recent Shabbat meal of mine in Jerusalem, where my family and I and our friends passionately discussed some of the most important issues of Israel in contemporary Jewish life. The diversity in the room was substantial. My parents recently bought an apartment in Jerusalem and come frequently, but they live in Minneapolis. My wife and I also visit Israel often, but I am highly critical of the reductionist, idealized Zionist education I received during my childhood. One friend was a native Israeli who helps prepare Israeli shlichim for work in the United States, another recently made aliyah and just finished his military service, and another is a rabbinical student spending her year in Israel. Together, we represented different nationalities, political ideologies and attitudes toward the American Jewish community. Just as importantly, we engaged in real inter-generational dialogue – something that happens far too infrequently in Jewish communal settings.

We didn’t agree on the aims of Zionist education or the place of Israel in Jewish life. But we discussed the issues, and the conversation did not follow a predictable script. The Israelis did not think all Jews should live in Israel, and the Americans – separated by generation and political ideology – strongly disagreed with one another about the future prospects of American Jewry and its relationship to Israel. But though the conversations weren’t easy, I left dinner with an even deeper respect for the people sitting around the table. And I learned that the disagreements, when we actually listen to one another, are more complicated and fall across more axes than we often assume.

In the same spirit, I challenge the major stakeholders in our community to stop taking each other’s words out of context and to stop polemicizing serious issues that need to be discussed. For at least a short while, let’s take words like “Nazi Germany,” “anti-Israel,” “self-hating Jew” and “apartheid” out of the conversation. If we do so, I believe we’ll have more success sitting around the table and speaking with each other. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) agree with one another on everything, but let’s open our ears, and our minds.

Avi Herring is a student in NYU’s graduate dual-degree program between the Wagner School of Public Service and the Skirball Department of Jewish Studies.