In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this the “Death by Israel Sermon.” Across the country, our communal discourse on Israel has grown so ugly that many have stopped caring and engaging at all.
I work with institutions and leaders across the country to build open, constructive communication across political divides on Israel. I’d like to share three patterns that prevail in the current American Jewish conversation about Israel, why it should urgently concern us and what we can do about it.
The first and most common pattern is avoidance. Dodging the “Death by Israel Sermon” is just one example. Most Jewish social justice organizations have explicit policies to avoid Israel. It seems every week another institution bans Israel from its listserv. Even what presents as apathy among millennials is often a mask for avoidance: “Oh, that nasty conversation? Who wants to go there?”
The second pattern is open antagonism: vilification, ad hominem attacks, quoting each other out of context, impugning motives, distorting each other’s posi-tions to reckless caricatures.
As Israel debates rage, Jewish professionals face employment repercussions
By Ron Kampeas · April 8, 2011
WASHINGTON (JTA) – The speaker invited then uninvited. The signature on the petition removed. The activity joined, then unjoined.
The job threatened.
Rabbis and Jewish professionals increasingly are being faced with a dilemma over discussing divisive topics -- especially regarding Israel -- central to how they see their Jewish missions without losing their professional mission.
“One of the concerns we have -- and we hear this over and over again from rabbis and community leaders -- people are afraid to discuss Israel,” said Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish policy groups and Jewish community relations councils. “People fear for their jobs, their professional lives if they have these conversations.”
Jewish tradition teaches us the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred within the Jewish people. Recent events are proving we need to learn far more from this tragic history of infighting. Today, internal squabbling and hurtful accusations of anti-Israel behavior are providing a dangerous distraction from the far more significant threat: delegitimization.
For those of us who are passionate supporters of Israel, it’s often difficult to hear views that depart from Israeli government policy or the current conventional wisdom. Some of us are infuriated when those on the left question particular policies or decisions of the government, as some did during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Others are angered when groups on the right consistently resist the efforts of successive Israeli governments to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of land for peace. But however much we may differ with those positions — and those differences should be debated vigorously — we need to recognize that the positions come from groups firmly invested in the Jewish people and the welfare of the State of Israel. They may differ on how Israel ought act to best secure its future, but they share a deep and abiding commitment to that future.
We are in the midst of the final section of the Book of Sh’mot and the devastating highlight of this section is the Sin of the Golden Calf. And when the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain they turned to Aaron and they said, “Make for us a God of gold who will lead us, because this One (God) of Moses the man, we don’t know what has become of Him.”
Israel wanted to worship God by portraying Him as a Golden Calf. Now, unconditional love of anyone, especially the Jewish people, requires that we try to understand their interest in worshipping a Golden Calf. What’s so terrible about this?
First of all they honor God by planning to make the Calf out of gold, the most precious metal. Gold is central to the construction of the Mishkan, the Ark, which is made of gold. The Menorah is made of gold. The two tiered, six leveled Table for the Shabbat Challa is made of gold.
Secondly, they just saw God work the Ten Plagues in Egypt and split the sea. They saw God defeat the Egyptian army and all of its chariots and horsemen. They perceive God as mightier than anyone. They look around their environment and it’s quite natural for them to see in a young calf, soon to be a bull, an example of might and power. What is so terrible about that? Alright, they made a mistake, but why such rage and anger from God and Moses in response? Their sin has in it some perfectly reasonable ideas.
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Laura Sutta says she doesn’t feel safe talking about Israel.
Sutta returned to the United States in 2003 after 23 years living in Israel and found that while she was away, the vitriol over Israel had reached a fever pitch in her Jewish community in the San Francisco Bay area.
“I’ve lost two friendships over it,” she said. “One was a friend from high school. When I talked to him about Israel, I could feel him judging me.”
Sutta says she’s dumbfounded by the “fury of the volleys being exchanged.”
Cecilie Surasky also doesn’t feel safe. The deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based organization that says it supports security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians but whose detractors claim it is anti-Israel, Surasky says she has filed four police reports in the past four months.
In one highly publicized incident in November, members of Surasky’s organization were pepper-sprayed at a meeting in Berkeley by a woman associated with StandWithUs, a pro-Israel activist group that often clashes with Jewish Voice for Peace. Other incidents Surasky reported to police included graffiti on the organization’s headquarters.
“We fear for our safety,” Surasky said. “The issue of Israel is really tearing this community apart.”
To deal with the growing rancor, the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council has launched a “year of civil discourse” to encourage local Jews to agree to disagree on Israel without name-calling or violence.
Published December 08, 2010, issue of December 17, 2010.
For several months, I have been an active participant in the community-wide campaign of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to restore civility to Jewish public life. As result, I am routinely asked: What does civility really require of us, besides hushed voices and respectful listening in public meetings and discussions? Is this just an exercise in good manners?
The first answer is: If it’s only that, then that’s pretty good — we always could use a reminder on how to act in public, especially when it comes to our debates about Israel.
But the second answer is: It has to be more than that. It has to get to the heart of what drives us apart, and it has to create a simple expectation that whatever divides us for a moment of time, we are ultimately all Jews, and have to treat each other as Jews, and not apostates.
The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)
The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.
But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.
Poll: Americans of all faiths see a civility problem in U.S. politics
By Nicole Neroulias
(RNS) Whether they rally behind Fox News’ Glenn Beck to “Restore Honor” or Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to “Restore Sanity,” Americans agree on one thing: our political system has a civility problem.
Four out of five Americans, regardless of party or religious affiliation, think the lack of respectful discourse in our political system is a serious problem, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Nov. 11).
The findings echo sentiments expressed by a range of religious leaders, including Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World,” and Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.