While others focus on the conflict between Israel and its enemies, a local congregation is striving to make peace — or at least generate civil discourse — within the local Jewish community itself.
In his sermon on Rosh Hashana and in a press release issued last week, Rabbi Douglas Sagal, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, warned that the American-Jewish community as a whole is facing a dangerous precipice, so deeply divided on the subject of Israel that dialogue has become almost impossible.
Two camps have formed, he said, “one that places Israel’s security above all else, and the other that places Israel’s moral fiber above all else.” The antagonists are demonizing one another, one side accusing the other of abandoning Jewish values while the other uses labels like “traitor” and “self-hating Jews.”
Sagal challenged his Reform congregation to tackle the problem, and to become an example to the broader Jewish community by showing a willingness to hear what each side has to say, and to exchange views without acrimony.
To meet that challenge, the Reform congregation is launching a year-long series titled “Varied Voices.” The first event, on Sunday, Oct. 16, will feature Jeremy Ben-Ami of the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group J Street.
On Sunday, Dec. 11, a speaker from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will present the organization’s views, often seen at odds with J Street’s.
Both talks are free and open to the public.
The congregation will also run a series of discussions for temple members, run by the Philadelphia-based Jewish Dialogue Group. Trained facilitators will guide small groups, helping the participants share and explore their contrasting views.
The issue is urgent, Sagal said in an interview with NJ Jewish News this week.
He called the American-Jewish community “a house divided” and in danger of losing “the last great shared cause that unites it — Zionism and its support for Israel.”
“I hope that our Varied Voices program will be an example of how a Jewish community can engage in respectful, informed debate about Israel — leading to even greater support for the Zionist enterprise,” he said.
Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, a nonprofit he started in 2008 with the stated intention of championing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which its members consider the best way to ensure a secure future for a democratic Israel.
AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group, describes its purpose as strengthening the United States-Israel relationship through political advocacy and securing U.S. foreign aid for Israel. AIPAC is also concerned with promoting strategic cooperation between the two nations.
The two organizations have often differed over issues like aid to the Palestinians, the U.S. administration’s role in the peace process, and the very definition of “pro-Israel.”
“This is a topic that stirs very deep passions,” Ben-Ami told NJJN. “With J Street and with this program, we’re hoping to offer those who have been driven away from the topic a way back in, a safe space where they can get involved.”
He said he would have welcomed a chance to share a platform with AIPAC, but that AIPAC hasn’t agreed to participate in joint events with J Street.
AIPAC does not comment on its policy in regard to participation in panel discussions.
Sagal told NJJN that the Varied Voices program is not envisaged as “a debate between competing views, but rather as a forum for a variety of views on Israel. Our hope is that Temple Emanu-El can establish a model that can be used by others.”
The program is being sponsored by the Charles Kroloff Fund for Jewish Learning. Kroloff, who is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, has helped plan the series. He told NJJN he believes that though most Jews are dedicated to Israel and care deeply about its future, the turmoil in the Middle East has dragged on for so long, attitudes have hardened, locally as well as nationally and internationally.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “I don’t think time is on Israel’s side. People are truly worried. We need new ideas. The worry is making it harder and harder for people to talk to one another. And if we Jews can’t, how can we expect the Israelis and Palestinians to?”