Making Room for Dissent

By Stephen P. Seiden and Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff

There is a reason as Jews that we like to laugh at the old saying, “two Jews, three opinions.” As a people and as individuals, we aren’t exactly timid about voicing our views. Jewish culture thrives on a good argument. Love of dissent and dialogue is what makes Talmudic tradition – built on give and take and back and forth – so strong. It is probably embedded deeply in our DNA.

This is one reason why the tenor of discourse surrounding the deal that aims to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions has been so disheartening. Jewish organizations that once touted their bona fides as the central address, the one place where we can all come together no matter our beliefs, political persuasions or affiliations, have dropped any pretense to providing a big tent and have taken a stand: You’re with us or you’re against us. Organizations that proudly point to open-door inclusiveness in their mission statements have, perhaps unintentionally, slammed it shut in the face of those who disagree with their positions, for or against.

JCC Association has been asked what position our organization is taking on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). We are an umbrella organization, representing more than 350 Jewish Community Centers, YM-YWHAs and camps across North America. Our board members serve on the boards of directors of their local organizations. Some of them are executive directors at their JCCs. Their views range from vehemently against to cautiously optimistic to strongly embracing the Iran deal. All, by the way, seek a strong, safe and vibrant Israel. How does an organization that makes it a point to stand for welcoming inclusion take a stand on the most divisive issue for the Jewish community in recent memory without disenfranchising many in its fold?

For more than a century, JCCs have served the entire Jewish community and friends and neighbors of every religion and background, making space for varied voices. As the largest network of Jewish engagement outside of Israel, JCCs proudly defy denominational separation. “Respecting and supporting diverse Jewish opinions, beliefs and practices are essential for strong and enduring Jewish communities,” reads one of the articles in JCC Association’s Vision Statement of Principles for the 21st Century. We want to continue doing that, and a vote that purports to speak for all JCCs on the Iran deal will imperil one of our core values.

As individuals stirred by the Iran deal, we are obligated to gain knowledge, test our positions, and advocate for what we believe is right. JCCs can and should provide the space for these processes to unfold. Within our walls we present an argument without being argumentative, and we listen to opposing points of view without talking over each other’s voices. As some Jewish organizations rush to take a stand – out of deep and heartfelt concern for the United States and Israel, real and abiding worry about the agreement, and America’s role as a leader – they have driven a deep wedge into the American Jewish community. More distressingly, their message says we have forgotten what it means to be convening organizations.

Diversity of opinion is power. A polarized community is not one that achieves much. In blurring these principles, we lose sight of one of our primary purposes. To best serve our communities we need to bring Jews together even at moments of greatest political divisiveness and passion – to think, debate, reconsider, question, and grow – even if it means exposing ourselves to dissent that makes us uncomfortable. We are a haven for tolerance and discussion and above all, JCCs are a place to dialogue with colleagues and neighbors of every perspective, making all of us wiser, more compassionate, and more prepared to solve the challenges and divisions we face. At JCCs that is what we do, every day.

Stephen P. Seiden is chair of JCC Association’s board of directors; Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is CEO and president of the organization. This article is cross-posted on JCC Association’s website