How To Talk About Israel?

by Rabbi Scott Perlo

How to talk about Israel? How to engender good conversation – not just silence or soundbites? Despite the fact that the single most successful Jewish communal initiative of the last 30 years – Taglit-Birthright Israel – is directly connected to the State, we suffer from a dearth of productive, thoughtful conversations about Israel within Jewish institutions and among Jews. Instead, much of the American Jewish community is left with avoidance, awkwardness, and apathy. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub has described this phenomenon of “antagonism or avoidance”, and 39% of Millennial Jews reported being “not very attached” or “not at all attached” to Israel in the recent Pew study.

At Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, a pluralistic outreach organization dedicated to serving young professionals in Washington D.C., we believe that the political discourse surrounding the State of Israel is so fraught that it effectively blocks those Jews with thoughtful questions or ambivalence from resolving their discomfiture and forming a mature, considered connection to contemporary Israel. It is not safe, they tell us, to voice confusion. As a result, qualms or conflicts are simply packed away, and a deep connection with Israel is eschewed.

In partnership with theNEXTDC (the DC area Birthright alumni network) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we asked what seemed like the obvious question: what would happen if we provided these young professionals a safe space to talk about Israel? In this space, they could process the perspectives they already possess, as well as consider thoughtful spiritual and philosophical rationales for Israel’s continuing relevance. Most critical to their needs, we would give them the opportunity to hash out their personal response to the kind of radical and polarized sound bites which one hears in the Israel debate (e.g. “Israel is an enemy of human rights;” “You are a traitor to the Jewish people;” etc.) which function to shut down thoughtful response.

We targeted our successful 3-day pilot seminar, “Managing Your Dysfunctional Relationship with Israel” at Birthright returnees, though we were surprised at the breadth of participant diversity. The demographic of the sold-out seminar included great political disparity, major differences in connection with Israel (AIPAC employees and those who had only visited once), as well as participants older than the Millenial demographic (unusual for us).

Based on facilitation techniques learned through Encounter, this pilot divided itself into three parts: establishing space for safe discussion and productive disagreement; exposing participants to spiritual and philosophical rationales for Israel’s importance, which were then evaluated in small groups; and finally, presenting polarized and radical sentiment in a calm setting for their considered response.

The pilot’s content and structure are still raw; however, this program worked beautifully. One participant, who had a history of public, antagonistic confrontations over the Israel shaliach, added significantly to this conversation in a thoughtful way. The major complaint request was for more time that three nights in order weren’t enough to address the deeper internal conflicts.

We cannot assume that the first response to decreased connection to Israel should be increased advocacy. For thoughtful, intelligent, well-educated adults, space must first be given for thinking, consideration, and process before they can be expected to become advocates.

Rabbi Scott Perlo is Associate Director of Religious Programming, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.