Have we Zionists forgotten how to listen?

Have we Zionists forgotten how to listen?

Here are just a few snippets from recent conversations regarding American Jewish support for Israel:

“Rabbi, I’m very upset and want to talk to you. How dare you allow a group like J Street to speak at Temple?”

“Rabbi, I simply do not understand how a social and religious progressive like you can be part of such a right-wing conservative organization as AIPAC.”

Two apparently opposite statements that are, I would argue, two sides of the same coin. To me, both reflect what is wrong with the current discourse with regard to the American Jewish community’s involvement in pro-Israel activity. We seem to be living in an era where Jewish issues have gone the way of Fox News and MSNBC: We simply listen to ourselves and those with whom we agree, and we demonize those who have a different perspective.

A third recent conversation: While speaking to the 20-something daughter of a friend, I mentioned J Street and used the term “pro-Israel” to describe it. She snapped at me, “Do you really consider J Street to be a pro-Israel organization?” When I replied that I did, she began to get incredibly agitated. I clarified my personal affiliations. “I am an AIPAC supporter.” I told her, “and as of this month am a member of the AIPAC National Council. I am not a member of J Street, and I have some serious questions about their approach, but I will not demonize them.” For her the conversation was over, because my unwillingness to close the door on J Street made me unworthy of conversation.

I would like to have seen a quicker and stronger position against BDS from J Street, and I would like to see more “pro” actively balancing their critique of Israel. But many of the J Street supporters I know are passionate in their support of Israel. When they self-define as pro-Israel, I accept that and believe others should as well. Moreover, I believe they should have been voted in as part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. 

J Street seemed ready for the outcome of this month’s vote denying them admission, and they immediately launched into a well-planned and seemingly pre-determined PR campaign to leverage their exclusion. 

“THANK YOU, CONFERENCE OF PRESIDENTS!” they wrote in a statement. “Yesterday’s rejection of J Street’s bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don’t in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community. The Conference of Presidents claims to be the ‘the proven and effective voice of organized American Jewry.’ Last night’s vote removed that pretense.”

Depending upon one’s perspective, their response was either brilliantly self-promoting or divisive in its malicious intent. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, rebuked the Conference of Presidents and its vote, threatening to have the URJ withdraw from the organization. He, in turn, received responses that chastised him and attacked J Street. 

With all the rhetoric flying in one direction or the other, it appears that no one is actually hearing other people with a differing perspective. In the week falling between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day, the Jewish community moved into high gear attacking one another. At a time when we should be looking to support an ever-more isolated Israel and building up an ever-more vulnerable American Jewish community, the leaders of our community seem to be willing to attack each other and to do so in public. That’s not good for anyone — except those who despise Jews and want to see Israel’s demise.

Do I think J Street should have been invited to the table and included in the Conference of Presidents? Yes.

Do I believe that, as an organization professing a pro-Israel commitment and a concern for the Jewish community, J Street’s response should have been more constructive in expressing their disappointment? Yes. 

Do I think Rabbi Jacobs should not have jumped in with such ardent support for J Street’s bid and such overt critic of the Conference of Presidents? Yes. I respect his taking a strong position, but I do not think it advanced the discussion, and I worry that he sounded more like he was part of a well-planned J Street response than the head of a movement who voted with the minority. 

All those questions are immaterial. The following are the important questions: 

Do I think the drama playing out is helpful in building Jewish community and securing the Jewish State? Not in the least. 

Do I think any of this is good for the Jews? The answer is an obvious and resounding “No!” There are so many true haters of Jews and Judaism. There are so many who would like to see Israel destroyed. We don’t need to fuel that fire. We don’t need to be doing their hate-filled job for them.

The rabbis of old teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam — groundless hatred. It was destroyed because those who had different perspectives approached one another with disdain. They didn’t discuss their differences, but instead they vilified one another. 

I want a strong American Jewish community, which is why I am a rabbi; I want a strong Israel, which is why I am a Zionist. I want a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, which is why I am an active member of AIPAC. I also want young Jews to grow up loving Judaism, loving Israel, caring about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and engaging in respectful debate that seeks to truly hear and understand the perspective of the other. I fear that rather than accomplishing those goals, our communal echo chamber is simply turning young Jews off even more.

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