Reuniting the Left and Right

The discourse on Israel has become so polarized between Left and Right that some Jews avoid talking about it altogether. The challenge is to join forces in strong support of Israel.

stars (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
stars (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
REMEMBER THE DAYS WHEN ISRAEL SERVED as a rallying point for the American Jewish community? Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel faced an existential threat from belligerent Arab neighbors and labored under an enormous financial burden as it absorbed hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, Jews in the US stood solidly behind the Jewish state.
But today? The discourse on Israel has become so polarized between left and right that some Jews avoid talking about it altogether. Others, having frequently observed disagreements degenerate into mutual acrimony between opposing sides, now regard the need for civil dialogue on Israel as a national Jewish priority.
Due to sharp differences among American Jews on such issues as the Jewish settlements and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, many rabbis no longer feel comfortable giving sermons about Israel lest they alienate congregants who disagree with their views. Some synagogues, moreover, have stopped doing any Israel programming of a political nature (e.g., hosting an AIPAC speaker), fearing it would be too divisive. Even more astonishing are reports of university Hillels that won’t display an Israeli flag in their buildings because it may offend some students.
Not everyone, of course, is choosing to avoid the issue of Israel. To address the growing rancor, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has issued a “Call for Civility” to promote civil discourse on Israel and other “challenging” issues; the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council has launched “a year of civil discourse” to engage local Jews across the political spectrum in respectful dialogue on Israel.
These efforts, though laudable, raise important questions: Does the imperative to create an inclusive environment conflict with the imperative to support Israel? Will Jewish federations, JCRCs and Hillels become so obsessed with fostering civility and inclusivity that they cease to be effective advocates for Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship? And does being inclusive mean there can be no red lines? Recently, national Hillel issued guidelines for Israel activities on campus that preclude partnering with or hosting any groups that “delegitimize” or “demonize” the Jewish state. The policy prompted a debate about Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), a fringe anti-Zionist group that supports boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel. In an essay published in the national Jewish student magazine New Voices in December, a former student argued that Hillel had “betrayed [its] mission by forbidding JVP from using Hillel space nationwide.”
True, Hillel exists to foster Jewish life on campus, not to defend Israeli policies. But the guidelines got it right: Any group rejecting the fundamental principles the Jewish community holds to be central – in this case, that Israel has a right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people – has, by virtue of its very mission, already chosen to exclude itself.
And make no mistake: Litmus tests aren’t applicable only to groups on the left. For example, would Hillel open its tent to a far-right Jewish group that’s Islamophobic? Even when red lines aren’t crossed, the tension between embracing divergent perspectives and steadfastly supporting Israel is inevitable. If Hillels, federations and other Jewish umbrella organizations concern themselves primarily with creating an inclusive environment, they run the risk of taking such watered-down stances on Israel as to be meaningless.
Or worse, they may adopt a policy to eschew statements on Israel entirely, afraid to take a stand because invariably someone will disagree.
Although no Jewish group should declare criticism of Israel to be offlimits, there still needs to be recognition of Israel as a core value of Jewish life. We don’t have to agree on where Israel’s permanent borders should be, just on Israel’s right to exist in security and peace.
Thus, when Hamas, which openly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, attacks Israel repeatedly with Qassam rockets, the Jewish community should rally behind Israel, unabashedly supporting its right to defend itself, even if the use of military force makes some groups on the left uneasy. If, on the other hand, Israel decides to dismantle settlements in pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, American Jewish support should be unequivocal, regardless of objections on the right.
As divisive as the issue of Israel has become, however, let’s not forget there are areas of consensus between conservatives and liberals. Whether one backs the right-wing Zionist Organization of America or left-wing J Street, we should be able to partner together to combat the insidious boycott, divestment and sanctions movement whose goal is the delegitimization of Israel. Similarly, there’s broad Jewish opposition to a Palestinian “right of return,” which is supported by the delegitimizers and would result in the elimination of the Jewish state through demographic subversion.
It’s also important to think of Israel beyond the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel, like all countries, has its share of vulnerable citizens who face economic and social hardships. American Jews from across the ideological spectrum can act collectively to assist disadvantaged Israelis, Arab as well as Jewish, by providing funds for vital social service programs.
The challenge for those promoting civil discourse, therefore, isn’t only to teach us to disagree respectfully, but to show us where it’s still feasible to join forces in strong support of Israel.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.