Learning civility

Finding ways to deal with American Jewish polarization over Israel.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-director of ‘Resetting the Table,’ a JCPA initiative to instill civility in communities across the country (photo credit: COURTESY PHOTO / RON BREWER PHOTOGRAPHY)
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-director of ‘Resetting the Table,’ a JCPA initiative to instill civility in communities across the country
AT THE same time commentators and columnists were questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to enlist American Jews to fight his battle against the Iran agreement in Congress, nearly 40 Atlanta Jewish leaders spent an entire Sunday in a conference room learning how to face each other, let alone talk about Israel.
Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta (JCRCA), the civility workshop was a long time coming to the city. It’s been a decade since the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council launched its Project Reconnections program to instill civility in that community regarding Israel conversations (The Jerusalem Report, November 9, 2009). Many other communities, large and small, have since brought trained facilitators to their cities to learn how to have respectful, civil conversations about the subject most fracturing the American Jewish community.
It’s not as if the need for a civility program hadn’t been obvious to many Atlanta Jewish community leaders for years.
“Several years ago, we saw the beginnings of American Jewish polarization over Israel,” Lois Frank, a former president of many Atlanta and national Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) tells The Jerusalem Report. “Locally, I think we’ve seen a continuum,” she says, pointing to several well-publicized eruptions in the Atlanta Jewish community going back nearly three years.
The first – noted by one community leader after another – was the disinviting of author and commentator Peter Beinart, in November 2012, by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s (MJCCA) annual book festival. His book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” was published in March of that year. The MJCCA president at the time reportedly said some of its patrons felt Beinart wasn’t appropriate for its festival.
Local rabbis criticized the MJCCA decision during services that weekend, and open letters to the Jewish community were published in the Atlanta Jewish Times. Although Beinart’s talk venue was changed and he was then heard by a sold-out crowd, the repercussions in the community can still be felt today.
Fast forward to earlier this year when many local rabbis threatened to boycott a breakfast sponsored by the regional office of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to honor local preacher Dr. Charles Stanley and present him with the Tree of Life Award, in recognition of his support for Israel.
The president and executive director of SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity wrote a letter to the JNF to express their disappointment in the choice of Stanley and to request that the award be withdrawn. “Dr. Stanley has a sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions,” wrote SOJOURN president Leanne Rubenstein and executive director Rebecca Stapel-Wax. The letter listed several of Stanley’s statements, including his public announcement calling AIDS God’s punishment for US acceptance of homosexuality.
While the letter acknowledged that Stanley’s views “as a Christian pastor on Israel may be in line with those of the Jewish National Fund, his views on homosexuality and the place of non-Christians in the world are simply incompatible with Jewish ethics and values.”
The Atlanta Jewish community exploded in controversy. Rabbis sermonized; articles raged across the pages of the Jewish Times; and mediation attempts mushroomed.
SOJOURN received widespread community support. Temporary peace was achieved when days before the scheduled breakfast, Stanley declined the JNF honor.
ACCORDING TO Harvey R ickles, president of the JCRCA, his group almost immediately started discussing the dire need to soothe the rancor in the divided Jewish community and find a way to defuse divisive disagreements that arise in the future.
“We came up with the idea for the civility program in May. We wanted to do something that was concrete and we wanted to make it happen as soon as possible.”
Both Frank and former JCRCA president Elizabeth Appley had participated in JCPA presentations by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-director of “Resetting the Table,” a JCPA initiative to instill civility in communities across the country. “I could immediately see the value of bringing Rabbi Weintraub to Atlanta,” Appley tells The Report.
“I’ve been increasingly concerned about discussions about Israel quickly deteriorating.
These discussions are filled with code words and strong positions that most people don’t find accessible, resulting in deep divisions in the community. It’s squelched any kind of discussion or inquiry, leaving out the vast majority of people.
We thought the best thing the JCRC could do was to create “a comfort zone” for Israel discussions, explains Appley.
As the JCRCA struggled with fast-tracking a civility workshop in Atlanta, the US, along with other world powers, signed an agreement with Iran that was designed to halt its march to nuclear weaponry.
As Congress launched its 60-day review period, battle lines were quickly drawn between Democrats and Republicans, splitting a conflicted and already alienated American Jewish community. Strong feelings about the issue split apart friends, while some avoided attending Shabbat services or any gathering of Jews.
Weintraub contends that there are three prevailing patterns in Jewish communities: avoidance of any Israel discussions; antagonism, including misrepresenting others’ positions and questioning others’ motives; and what she calls avoidance 2.0 – people retreating into echo chambers or silos with like-minded people.
In her “Speaking Across Conflict” workshop in Atlanta, she said the costs of these patterns are high. She pointed to “widespread Israel disengagement and fatigue,” “political inefficacy,” “harmed community and relationships,” and “loss of collective insight.” This is a warning Weintraub is sharing with leadership of synagogues and central agencies and on college campuses throughout the country.
“The demand is overwhelming,” she says.
The UJA Federation of New York seeded the work of Weintraub and her husband, Eyal Rabinovitch, a trained mediator and former sociology academician. The Federation is “our angel investor,” says Weintraub.
“They see this as one of the keys to the next generation.”
Resetting the Table is also running an 18-month program at New York’s Upper West Side Congregation B’nai Jeshurun that exploded onto the pages of The New York Times in 2012. Chaos ensued after a draft letter from the Upper West Side synagogue’s rabbis was prematurely released in which they called the Palestinians’ bid to upgrade their status in the United Nations, “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.” Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon was quoted as saying, “We want to make peace with the Palestinians, but we can’t even make peace amongst ourselves. It’s quite pathetic.”
WHILE WEINTRAUB is more the public face and focuses on strategic and business development, Rabinovitch concentrates on training facilitators. “I direct and manage the seven-month fellowship training in New York,” he explains. Both say the pronounced differences within Jewish communities were exacerbated by Israel’s war with Gaza in the summer of 2014, which precipitated “more communal leaders to talk about the need for civil conversations, but they haven’t known what to do on a practical level.”
Weintraub tells The Report that the Iran agreement is just “the latest manifestation of entrenched underlying issues.” In the last year, she says, she’s seen a shift in consciousness about the need to address disagreements surrounding Israel in communities.
She says “volatile moments” such as the JNF-SOJOURN crisis in Atlanta are less common than a general recognition of avoidance of Israel in a community.
In fact, Atlanta has continued to be a fertile ground for sparks set off by Israel disagreements. This spring, another controversy struck the Atlanta Jewish community when a program sponsored by the New Israel Fund prompted backand- forth op-eds in the Atlanta Jewish Times, eventually prompting the editor to call a time-out.
The independent Atlanta JCRC recognized these recurring crises in Israel-related programming, and, with this civility workshop, wanted to establish itself as the community convener for better communication.
Rickles says the first goal was to invite “lay and professional leadership from a cross-section of key Jewish organizations in the community, and we wanted a balance of viewpoints, whether religious or political. We also wanted diversity in age groups.”
The JCRCA issued by-invitationonly requests. In a span of less than three months, JCRCA committee members personally recruited a cross-section of rabbis, thought leaders and organizational heads. Among them was SOJOURN’s Stapel-Wax and JNF’s co-president Alan Lubel, who met for the first time at the civility workshop.
“Talking about civil discourse is not a theoretical discussion to me,” says Lubel.
“We lived through a very real and very rancorous dispute. We lived through a public example of Jewish organizations disagreeing. I came to the workshop with this perspective.”
Melanie Nelkin, a JCRCA vice president, says she “homed in” on Lubel and Stapel-Wax sitting together and talking during the civility workshop. For her, that showed at least a partial success for the program. But Frank says “the jury is still out” about whether the workshop achieved its over-arching goals. “It was a qualified success because people came and invested their time to be together. When we see more transparency and more open discussion, then it’ll be a success.”
Appley says JCRCA’s intention was to “sow the seeds for future programming and activities dedicated” to this approach of handling Israel conversations. Lubel pointed to the workshop’s talk of establishing some kind of guidelines for community organizations. “If a formal structure was in place (when JNF and SOJOURN squared off), it might have helped us communicate about our disagreement,” he tells The Report.
The JCRCA plans to survey the workshop participants to gauge how to move forward and expand the civility discussion. Weintraub is clear that a one-time workshop isn’t likely to achieve a cultural change in a community.
“Minimally, it gets people excited about this work,” she says.
On the Shabbat that ended the week that started with the JCRCA civility workshop, Jonathan Greenblatt, the new national director of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke at Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash, lamenting the heightened divisiveness created by disagreements over the Iran agreement.
“I must admit that my heart breaks when I see how this debate has torn apart the Jewish community,” he said during Shabbat services. He pointed out that those who support the agreement are called “naïve, self-haters, stooges for the president.”
Those opposed are called “warmongers, traitors, stooges for the prime minister.”
“We are hurling epithets at each other rather than focusing on who may be hurling things at us,” he said.