How to Have the Conversation about Israel at your JCC or Synagogue

cloudy_Israel_flagDeep, meaningful, passionate and civil discussion about Israel is essential both to American Jewish survival and to Israel’s future.

By Zack Bodner

On Sunday, November 22, over 750 attendees participated in an all-day conference at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California called “Zionism 3.0: Israel’s place in tomorrow’s world.” In partnership with Ha’aretz newspaper, we hosted speakers from across the political spectrum – from Bret Stephens to Peter Beinart, from Amos Schocken to MK Tzipi Hotovely, from Jeffrey Goldberg to MK Zouheir Bahloul, and over a dozen more.

Despite our Jewish community being as politically divided over Israeli politics as any other in the US, we felt it was important to create opportunities for open dialogue, especially after the fractious experience around the Iran nuclear deal.

How did we successfully bring together such diverse speakers and such a disparate community? It took patience, hard work and courage. Here are six tips for how you can try this in your community. And a closing thought on why you should!

  1. Set boundaries early. Our Jewish Federation has a basic funding guideline that no recipient institution can host pro-BDS speakers. This event – and we think all others – should start with the baseline belief in Israel’s right to exist. Within that wide tent there is still plenty of room to disagree.
  2. Get community buy-in. We invited many other organizations to co-sponsor, including Stand With Us, New Israel Fund and the ADL. Our host committee included the Chair of Northern California AIPAC and our donors included one of J Street’s board members. This demonstrated that we were serious about the big tent and were not tilting the poles one direction or another. Despite many concerned emails and phone calls, this broad committee gave us the cover to go forward.
  3. Set the tone from the get-go. At the opening session, we established the ground rules: “Everyone here is a guest in our house and must be treated that way. You can disagree with them, but be respectful. If you are not, you will be asked to leave.” We set attendee – and speaker – expectations clearly: Get ready to hear some ideas you will not like – it’s okay – you could end up stronger for it. I shared with the audience that there were even speakers here with whom I vehemently disagreed. All the post-event feedback confirmed this “level-setting” was crucial.
  4. Be brave, take some risk. In our case, the risk was using the word “Zionism” in the title. Many felt this word was a lightning rod, but we wanted to get people’s attention. We wanted to make clear this wasn’t going to be a boring, business-as-usual discussion. Plus, we really did want to talk about the future of Zionism and the relationship between Israel and American Jews. And we wanted to reclaim “Zionism” from those who expropriated it and cast it in a negative light.
  5. It helps if you already have strong pro-Israel bona fides. Having spent the last 15 years of my career doing pro-Israel advocacy, I have a pretty solid pro-Israel reputation. So folks knew that just because we invited speakers and organizations who are often critical of Israel, there was no chance this event would be a bash-Israel-fest. I personally approached some of our supporters whom I knew would be concerned with certain speakers and asked them to trust us. They did. Our community is now stronger for it.
  6. Lead by example. I suffered many sleepless nights struggling with how we could invite speakers to my JCC that I strongly disagreed with. This personal struggle didn’t just start with Zionism 3.0; it started two months earlier when we hosted a panel on the Iran Deal. I wanted only speakers who were against the Iran Deal but one of my board members urged me to consider offering a platform for the other side as well. He reminded me that we call ourselves “the living room of the Jewish people,” and people disagree in the living room. It ended up being a hugely successful event because people felt they would hear all sides of the issue.

Despite my reservations, the Iran Panel experience and the support of friends, mentors and advisors led me to support this wide-ranging dialogue about Zionism. In the end, I recognized that the OFJCC cannot just showcase my own positions on Israel, just as it can’t represent only my version of Judaism. I may be the CEO, but the JCC belongs to our whole community. And one of the major strengths of this community is its diversity and richness of opinions, perspectives and practices.

That’s why Zionism 3.0 ultimately succeeded. We showed that our community could be an intellectual powerhouse; that we could jumpstart a national dialogue – not in New York, where that’s expected – but in Silicon Valley, a birthplace of innovation.

So, now I come to the why. Why should you try this?

Because deep, meaningful, passionate and civil discussion about Israel is essential both to American Jewish survival and to Israel’s future. Don’t shy away from controversial, difficult issues. Engage with them. That’s what it means to be Jewish. That’s what it means to be the People of Israel. Judaism has always asked us to question, challenge and wrestle with our Jewish beliefs and texts. And we must continue to do this in dialogue with God and with each other.

Zack Bodner is CEO at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA.