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Why Civil Discourse Must Become a National Jewish Priority.april12

Why Civil Discourse Must Become a National Jewish Priority.april12

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10/05/2013

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 Why Civil Discourse on Israel Must Become a National Jewish Priority 
*
 
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub
 
How many of you have ever felt ill at ease having a conversation about Israel withpeople with whom you disagree?
 
How many of you ever felt frustrated talking about Israel, or experienced any form of alienation, antagonism, or damaged relationship in talking about Israel?I would really love to
draw out these stories and hear what‟s most alive in your
experiences, and I am going to leave a good half of our allotted time together fordialogue. In my few minutes no
 w, I‟m going to speak about the ways Israel
has becomethe most volatile wedge issue in American Jewish life; why that should urgently concernus; and what we can do about it.First, a few summary observations, drawn from dozens of conversations with Jewishleaders and community members across the country 
.
 There are three common, current avenues for Israel engagement in American Jewishlife:1.
 
 Avoidance.
I was in a room recently with all the national luminaries of the Jewishsocial justice movement, and every one of them has an organizational policy to avoid
Israel. We can‟t pos
sibly, they say, build a coalition on issues like the environment,Darfur, domestic or global poverty, if we touch Israel.Rabbis of every denomination and from across the country, have voiced fear of saying
anything
about Israel. As one of them put it to me recently, I‟m not going to get
fired for my politics on health care. But I fear I could get fired for just about anything Isay about Israel. Rabbi Scott Perlo, a Rabbi in LA, has referred to this phenomenon as
the “death by Israel” sermon.
Rabbi Danny Gordis described a decree by one RabbinicalSeminary administration designating all e-mail conversations about Israel as off limits.It seems everyday I discover another synagogue or Jewish organization
that‟s banned
Israel from its listserv.
This trend sometimes presents as indifference or apathy that‟s
real
ly a mask for avoidance and confusion, especially among young Jews (which I‟ll
return to); oh that ugly conversation; who wants to go there?
2.
 
The second avenue:
Mutual antagonism,
 bullying. Attacks and counter-attacks, onOpEd pages and in the blogosphere.
 
 Vilification
at times ad hominem smearcampaigns, but equally as damaging
, reduction of each other‟s nuanced posi
tions toreckless caricatures. Reproduction of the reasonable, complex arguments of those with whom we disagree with as straw men, funhouse mirror distortions: quoting each other
out of context, impugning each other‟s motives, listening in order to find flaws in ourcounterparts‟ arguments, speaking in order to score points, castigating and shaming
rather than inquiring into, hearing, taking to heart, and engaging.
*
Adapted from talks given at the JCPA Plenum, American Jewish Committee, and several other forums.
 
3.
 
The third option, I call
 
“avoidance 2.0”.
That is Israel-related advocacy and discoursethat involves congregating, conferencing, and talking exclusively to those with whom weagree. That is, the Jewish people splinters into self-affirming nuclei of our respectiveorganizations, each of them largely morally superior and self-certain, talking past oneanother, or now and then colliding in frustration and hostility. Many of us rally and takepride in the numbers of those who are with us, while dismiss
ing those who aren‟t as
dangerous, ignorant, malicious or loony.OR: in another version of avoidance 2.0: we say there is no problem here. That is,as long as we play it safe; we address Israel without going near any of our differences orany possible area of contention.These are the three predominant modes of Israel engagement in American Jewish life.I want to zoom out for a moment, as a theorist and practioneer of conflict resolution. Wethe Jewish people are not the first to play out such destructive patterns of social conflict.Consider the ways activists in the abortion wars treated each other for decades. At thispoint, we are part of a broader, increasingly polarized American political culture in which rage has become the common vernacular. Mud-slinging, aggressive face-offs, andgridlock have taken the place of genuine collective problem-solving. When we get stuck in patterns of hostility or avoidance
generally a degenerative spiralof conflict has taken hold. In such a pattern, people who disagree tend to harden against
each other‟s genuine integrity and concerns. Informal interaction across lines of 
disagreement grow rare. Adversaries tend to
parody each others‟ positions, dismissing
each other in categorical and one-dimensional terms as threatening, radical or extreme, brainwashed or crazy. Over time, it becomes difficult for anyone, wherever one stands,to engage with the conflict without being pigeon holed and attacked. Ultimately, theillusion gets created that there are two and only two opposing sides, in part becausemany voices of complexity, curiosity, nuance, and uncertainty get trampled orintimidated. While I believe we are playing
out these destructive dynamics full force, I‟m not here toreprimand us for our evil ways. I don‟t think we‟re shutting each other down because we
are arrogant or cruel. I believe many of us are shutting each other down because we arescared. Neuroscientists have actually tracked at the level of brain chemistry the way our brains shut down big picture thinking when we sense threat or danger; we prioritizeimmediate self-protection and shut all else out. We either want to flee from danger or beat it down -- which
can
 be
mal 
adaptive from the perspective of mounting a successfulresponse to threat.
 
 When it comes to entrenched, polarized social conflict, the potential for amaladaptive fight-or-flight response is always already in the room, easily ignited even without direct aggression, or intended adversarialism. We see our ideologicalcounterparts as threats or dangers only, and label them as such:
“Naïve k 
nee-jerk 
liberal,” “
 bigoted war mongering neo-
con,” “traitor,” “chauvi
nist.
 A series of buzzwordsget created; someone says fence or wall, Judea and Samaria or Palestine, and we say,
„Oh you‟re one of those.‟
 Anyone from any side of the conflict who wants to speak has tonegotiate an obstacle course of verbal landmines.
 
 
 The inverse of these destructive patterns -- mutual inquiry, listening and respect in theface of our differences --
is hard enough to put into practice when we‟re most at ease. When we‟re confident that what matters most to us is not at risk.
 
 When we‟re
surrounded by those who agree with us and understand us
or at least are sincerely trying to.
 When we‟
re anxious or threatened, curiosity and openness are usually thefurthest things from our minds.This is a time when many of us, on every side of the political spectrum, are scared.
Scared for Israel‟s
security and future. Scared that Israel is in danger. Scared that thereis so much at stake: not only 
our peoples‟ safety 
, but also our very identities and moststrongly-held values and commitments. A 
nd 
 w 
hat‟s more
- our relationships with eachother when we disagree about what will best serve those commitments. Scared that if weopen our mouths and say the wrong thing we may be ostracized, put in a box, or bludgeoned. Scared that speaking will open us to being misunderstood ormisconstrued, our nuances lost.One of my colleagues in intra-Jewish dialogue work, Rachel Eryn Kalisch, has
observed that „both g
uardians and prophets (which she likes to say rather than right andleft) can get so crazy about Israel because so many of us
 believe if you don‟t agree withme we‟re all going to get killed.”
 
 You don‟t know because if you did you would see how  you‟re collaborating with our enemies in
our potential annihilation or with our leadersin driving us off a cliff!!This is a terrifying time for all those who care about Israel. And in such a high-stakes,fraught political arena, it is also a terrifying time to
talk
about Israel, let alone be open
to hearing others‟ views and humble about our own.
But it is now when that spirit of inquiry is most important. Because the closed,
antagonistic, and avoidant ways we‟re communicating, understandable as they are
, aredestroying our people in the very moment we most need to be building our people up.Our destructive communication is leading to hurt, frustration, fear, and loneliness.People on all sides of the political spectrum
are ending up vocal and frustrated OR silent and resentful, and done with this.
 
 
 We‟re draining
significant energy from our most important and urgent communalpriorities, including the significant challenges Israel confronts.
 
 We‟re sacrificing the creative problem
-solving that will only come from mining ourcollective wisdom, not from group think.
 When we surround ourselves with those who agree
 with us and avoid those who don‟t, we end up with incomplete information and defective
decision-making. We all lose the big picture, crucial insight, the liabilities of our own analysis,and most importantly - innovative ways forward
.Finally, in my long list of [why we
have
to do better, despite how hard it
is]: We‟re losing
people. We are turning people off, and particularly the next generation, who arestanding at the gates of the Jewish community, looking inside and
saying „not for me.‟
There have been a slew of studies and articles in recent year about Young JewsDistancing from Israel. Most of them collect data to substantiate that its happening, but

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