Restoring respectful dialogue about Israel

Conversations about Israel are too important for wide swaths of the Jewish community to feel excluded or ostracized for fear of judgment or condemnation.

November 14, 2017 20:43
4 minute read.
Israeli flag western wall

‘TOO OFTEN, Diaspora Jews encounter a reflex of judgment and exclusion when expressing opinions about Israel that deviate from the established norm"'.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Is declining aliya from the United States and other countries, as the Jewish Agency recently found, foreshadowing an end to the strong ties between the State of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora? These recent findings remind us of the importance of finding ways for Jews around the world to connect with Israel and ensure this strong connection endures.

These connections – and Israel’s Jewish and democratic character – can only be maintained with an open dialogue about Israel and Zionism that is embracing of widely diverse perspectives. This imperative is especially crucial within the liberal Zionist community, which provides for a multitude of ways that Jews both inside and outside of Israel can engage and define their relationship with the Jewish state.

Public debate in Judaism – including arguments about core, controversial social and political issues – dates back to the Talmudic days of Hillel and Shammai. However, a constructive dialogue is only possible when conducted with mutual respect and good faith and with a willingness to consider reshaping one’s own opinion. All sides are obliged to ensure that the conversation about the future of Israel does not descend into an unproductive shouting match.

Too often, we Diaspora Jews only think about Israel in terms of its government and the political parties in power.

That’s why we must fully engage ourselves in the work of understanding and appreciating modern Israeli life, with a focus on the richness and vibrancy of Israeli culture. Its history, literature and art are crucial parts of modern Jewish life. This also means that we must equip ourselves with the tools to understand and interact with this culture, for example by studying the Hebrew language and accessing modern Israeli literature. We must be more than observers, and instead become full participants in the national life of the Jewish state.

Israeli Jews have a role to play as well. Too often, Diaspora Jews encounter a reflex of judgment and exclusion when expressing opinions about Israel that deviate from the established norm, even when those views are derived from careful and thoughtful consideration and expressed in good faith. This phenomenon is by no means one-sided, but as Diaspora Jews take the initiative to engage deeply with Israeli life and culture, they deserve a reciprocal willingness to engage in understanding Diaspora Jewish life from their Israeli brothers and sisters, regardless of political differences.

So, how can we work together to build and maintain greater mutual respect, engagement and dialogue among Jews in Israel, among Jews in the Diaspora, and between the two groups? While there is no one answer, we offer a few suggestions for liberal Zionists seeking to engage their communities: • Create safe spaces: The concept of “safe spaces” has been much maligned, but such spaces have an important part to play in building and preserving a productive dialogue around Israel and Zionism. Synagogues and Jewish community leaders, both in Israel and the Diaspora, should work to create opportunities for their members to express their honest, thoughtful and informed opinions on these issues, without fear of judgment or exclusion and with predetermined ground rules that ensure mutual respect and good faith.

• Facilitate varied ways to express Zionism: There’s no shortage of ways that Jews around the world can connect to Israel. Educating oneself and participating in respectful conversations about Zionism, supporting Israel from abroad, forming deep and lasting friendships with Israelis, finding opportunities to visit and study in Israel, engaging in deepening American political support for Israel and opening our doors to younger adults to express their doubts, their challenges, their dreams – are all ways to engage meaningfully with the Jewish state. Communities should ensure that their members have opportunities to express their Zionism in ways that are most relevant and enriching for them.

• Support liberal Israelis and their institutions: There are organizations in Israel, such as the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), that are dedicated to advancing progressive and liberal causes within Israeli politics and society. Not only does supporting these organizations help advance our mutual goal to promote democratic and pluralistic ideals, it makes clear to liberal Jews everywhere that Israel is a country where their values have a place and a voice. Such support also sends the clearest possible message to Israel’s political and cultural leaders that the future of Israeli progressive Judaism is quite robust.

Conversations about Israel are too important for wide swaths of the Jewish community to feel excluded or ostracized for fear of judgment or condemnation. By opening up the conversation and encouraging greater personal and cultural interaction between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, we can ensure that the future of Israel aligns with a progressive vision and that Jews in America and around the world feel a deep, lasting connection to Zionism for years to come.

Rabbis Stanley M. Davids and Lawrence A. Englander are co-editors of The Fragile Dialogue, a forthcoming book from CCAR Press that explores the diverse perspectives of the liberal Jewish community on Israel and Zionism.

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