Managing in an Age of Anger and Fear: How We Engage Around Israel

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Wherever one turns today, on email or twitter accounts, whether in letters to the editor or postings to articles, or responses to guest presenters, there appears to be a litmus test concerning Israel. Increasingly, one finds names showing up on “lists.” Some of these postings are seen as the “correct” listserv, while others are identified as being a part of an “enemies” list.

Have we created within the Jewish world a political mindset similar to what we experienced in the age of McCarthyism? Are we employing the very same measures introduced in the 1950s to determine if someone was a Communist? At this time a type of loyalty test concerning Israel seems to be in play. The paramount question then, and apparently again now, appears to be “are you ___or where you ever ___?” One can fill in these blanks, whether it is about “settlements,” “human rights,” “borders,” “Palestinian Statehood,” or “Jerusalem” and more.

Identifying rabbis, scholars, writers, journalists, and professors among others, who have offered up ideas that are described as injurious or dangerous to Israel’s security, or to the welfare of the Jewish people seems to be the new criteria for determining one’s acceptability. Constructive criticism and thoughtful questioning have given way to an approved litany of terms and phrases. A new Zionist orthodoxy has been created.

Prism of Fear: Some folks appear to be operating only from a narrow place, where challenging ideas or opposing views are automatically dismissed. Little attention is given to nuisance or context. In some circles “trigger” terms or words can determine one’s political status or standing. A code of “correct” Jewish conduct seems to be in place. Certain ideas are automatically labeled as the appropriate “pro-Israel” language, while other themes are described as problematic, if not treasonous, in defense of Israel.

Labeling: Little attention is given to a person’s lifelong credentials as a Zionist or being pro-Israel activist. There is little regard today for serious inquiry and questioning. Critical thinking appears to have been set aside by some when examining the complexities that define Israel and the Middle East. Labels are seen as an acceptable way to determine one’s enemies from our friends.

Tarnished Institutions: “Guilt by association” has become the mantra of our times. By default, we see the marginalizing of organizations when its leadership deems it appropriate to invite or honor an individual whose views are seen by some as problematic. It is as if the individual becomes the institution. Honest inquiry and thoughtful disagreement are no longer permitted. Everything and everyone is boxed together, with these imposed boundaries meant to cast you as either being inside or outside of the Jewish tent.

Subtleties are Lost: Complexity seems to be minimized in this age, as every statement or action is judged through a narrow lens of what is considered as appropriate speech.

In this tense environment, conversations around the subject of Israel are difficult, if not impossible, to carry forward. Sadly, such discourse often ends in anger and with suspicion. For the uninformed, this entire exercise is a losing proposition. If we are to engage the many new voices, Jewish and non-Jewish, sitting outside our board rooms or meeting halls, those seeking to learn about Israel’s historic rebirth and the politics of this region are not likely to embrace our messages, especially if these are only built around the rhetoric of demonization.

Any conversation about Israel must be seen as complex, precisely because the history and politics of Israel reflect the very difficulties and complexities of the Jewish experience. Indeed, the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and as a result expectations and solutions must be understood within the context of the historical and political realities that define this region.

The question here is how we can find common ground, not only between Israelis and their American counterparts but also at home within our Jewish communities. Elsewhere I have offered some additional commentary on the Jewish wars we are experiencing.[1]

For effective communication and dialogue to unfold there must exist a shared base of knowledge, a level of open reflection, and a culture of civility. We are dramatically reminded that this experiment in Jewish state building is a relatively new venture, hardly a significant period of time to develop a mature, sophisticated understanding of how a nation, its citizens or its Diaspora partners ought to behave and operate. Yet, Jewish history readily informs us that where our people remain in discord, the political outcomes have been profoundly problematic!


Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus, HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website,