Let the Debates Begin: Unpacking the Jewish Wars

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

What divides the Jewish people? Jewish history is filled with communal conflict, disagreements over religious practice, personal conduct, and communal policy. In fact, Jewish texts reflect these controversies, offering at times detailed scenarios depicting the rabbis offering various perspectives. At times, we are introduced to a “majority opinion” accompanied as well by a “minority report.” The rabbis seem to be able to battle through their arguments yet still able to acknowledge their opponents’ ideas, even giving recognition to these dissenting opinions. Indeed, some contemporary Jewish organizations, while putting forth their policy positions will also publish the dissenting arguments within their ranks. In February this writer shared an essay on this site focusing on the “great divide” that today defines the Jewish agenda.

In today’s communal practice a whole array of policy challenges seem to be present. Ten of these controversial issues are introduced here. Most of these questions are tied directly or indirectly to the Israel-Diaspora connection. Many of the items reference the unique position of 20th and now 21st century Jews as we continue to negotiate the power balance between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel.

No doubt, there are many more divisive matters that Jewish leaders and their boards struggle with on an ongoing basis. At times these policy battles spill over into personality wars. In the aftermath of these struggles, we have seen donors withdraw support, board members resign, and professionals relieved of their responsibilities. From time to time, we learn of rabbis who have been dismissed from their pulpits, as a result of “death by sermon” where their political or social perspectives were seen as contrary to the interests and views of congregational leadership.

  1. Who can pray and where? The Kotel Agreement may represent the latest in a series of disputes over access to and the practice of Judaism in the public square.
  2. Who is a Jew? In part related to the above issue, the conversion controversy has been around for a while, yet it remains a hot-button topic, arousing strong feelings on all sides.
  3. Guess who is coming to dinner? The conflict over personalities who may be invited to speak and what criteria ought to be used to determine their credentials or their credibility to address complex and divisive issues of the Jewish people? The selection of materials or films has created similar cultural wars.
  4. Are you or are you not? The disagreements over definitions of how we categorize who is an anti-Zionist and who should be labeled an anti-Semite?
  5. Who can be invited to sit at the table? As noted above, the question of loyalty can apply to organizations, as well as individuals. The J Street Debate, and the broader question of what constitutes a legitimate pro-Israel organization? Is there room at the Jewish table for the voices of dissent, including JVP and IfNotNow?
  6. Can you be proIsrael, if? The debate over President Obama’s Iranian Nuclear Accord Agreement raised questions among some advocates questioning the pro-Israel credentials of those who supported this Agreement. The larger issue introduced here revolves around what criteria ought to be employed to define “loyalty?”
  7. Who may speak? The debate over Israel’s settlement policies and other issues that are seen as important to defining the Jewish State’s democratic and Jewish character. This debate has opened up the larger question of who may critique Israeli policies, only its citizens or do Diaspora Jews also have the right to question the government?
  8. How ought we to fight BDS? This is a battle over strategies and tactics, but in some quarters the defenders of particular positions have been called out for not labeling BDS activists as “anti-Israel” or worse?
  9. When should the community speak out? The question of when ought the Jewish community and its primary agencies address public policy concerns? This issue most recently surfaced around the proposed Muslim ban and the reaction on the part of many Jews in opposing such an action. When should Jewish organizations take up public policy positions and what criteria ought to drive their decision to act?
  10. Who speaks for Diaspora Jews? Here the question revolves around the competing voices within the Jewish world and which one(s) has the authority or the credibility to address the issues that impact the community.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives special attention to these corrosive issues, when he writes:

Recent history – the Holocaust, and the sense of involvement that most Jewish throughout the world feel in the fate of Israel – has convinced us that the Jewish destiny is indivisible. We are implicated in the fate of one another. That is the substantive content of our current sense of unity. But it is a unity imposed, as it were, from outside. Neither anti-Semitism nor anti-Zionism, we believe, makes distinctions between Jews. Hence our collective vigilance, activity, and concern. But from within, in terms of its own self-understanding, the Jewish people evince no answering solidarity. External crisis unites Jews; internal belief divides.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.