For the sake of heaven

For the sake of heaven

Recently a federation leader asked me how we choose the op-eds and opinions we publish, and how we determine which opinions are appropriate or not.

In answering, I gave the example of Israel opinions, which tend to arouse the strongest emotions.

When it comes to saying yes, I invariably look to the “acceptable” range of political opinion in Israel itself. If there is a sizable constituency in Israel in favor of an idea or attitude, I assume our readers are sophisticated enough to tolerate it in a Jewish newspaper. When it comes to the two-state solution, for example, you can find Israelis, like MK Naftali Bennett, who consider the idea dead in the water. You can point to the prime minister, who supports the idea in theory. And you can find a significant camp who feel Benjamin Netanyahu is doing too little to turn that theory into practice.

I’d have a hard time rejecting a well-argued essay that landed anywhere along this spectrum. If American Jews shouldn’t be having this discussion, then who should?

Some readers might argue that unlike Israelis, American Jews don’t have the luxury of appearing divided in public, and that our political power rides on our ability to project unity.

Yet somehow, coming after decades of bitter and public divides over the peace process, the Gaza evacuation, and religious pluralism in Israel, American support for the pro-Israel agenda has never been stronger. A solid majority of Americans favors the Israeli cause. Lawmakers who talk about “resetting” the U.S.-Israel relationship barely form a minyan.

If this is the price of “disunity,” then bring it on.

Some writers make it easy to say no. They attack other writers, not their ideas. Or they ridicule political rivals for daring to hold opinions contrary to their own. Not that a strong or uncomfortable metaphor or epigram are deal-breakers — sometimes I think it’s worse to be bored than offended. And besides, we have a letters to the editor section and comments pages on our website, giving readers the opportunity to argue back.

What complicates this process is that we are a partner of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The federation is a fund-raising and planning body that often takes policy positions in Trenton and Washington. As a nonprofit, the federation must be nonpartisan, but it can advocate for policies true to its own principles.

Happily, the federation has never demanded that NJJN or its contributors hew to a party line, theirs or anybody else’s. As an organization that aims to build community, it values a paper that reflects the community’s political and theological diversity. They know that trying to get Jews to agree on anything is like — well, trying to get Jews to agree on anything.

The world of Jewish communal professionals was abuzz this week on the topic of federations and what kind of criticism they can abide from within. In an essay for the web magazine, Michal Kohane, a staffer at the San Francisco Jewish federation, wrote a piece urging Jewish organizations to pay more attention to older Jews — roughly the baby boomer set. Her recommendations were sensible and intriguing — more programs for empty nesters, a “Birthright Israel” for 50-somethings, singles events. If we devote the lion’s share of money and resources on young people, she argued, we’ll lose older Jews who still have a lot to offer the community.

It’s not a radical idea. Nonetheless, the essay precipitated her firing by her federation. Jewish message boards lit up with outrage. Some eJewishPhilanthropy readers all but compared the federation to Putin’s Russia. By Friday, the S.F. federation released a statement saying Kohane was let go because she had not sought its permission before publishing about federation business.

I’m guessing there may be more going on here, but Kohane is not blameless. While she makes some good points, she also ridicules “smug” 20-somethings and the funders who have made them a priority. Her language is heated and dismissive. The essay reads like the angry e-mail you write before the one you actually send. Was it a firing offense? I don’t think so, although I can see how her employer might have objected to her lack of judgment.

Had Kohane submitted the essay to NJJN, I would have sent it back for a rewrite, but not because it disagreed with the policy of her federation. I would have asked that she tone down the invective, to make a case for engaging 50-somethings without ridiculing the ideas or work of others. Her essay would have been publishable — and more persuasive — had she shown more respect for those who might disagree with her.

A Jewish world facing an array of challenges needs new ideas, and a lot of healthy debates. We should welcome critics and iconoclasts, and dare ourselves to read opinions we might disagree with. And we should do it in a spirit of respect — for each other, for the Jewish community, for a tradition that knows the value of passionate argument.

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