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The Key to Jewish Discourse about Israel: Disagree, Don’t Demonize

It’s no secret that Jews love a good argument; it’s a fact that the community has embraced for centuries. One thing that is getting harder for Jews to argue about, however, is Israel. On December 15, 2014, Beth Israel played host to an event sponsored by J Street and featuring Peter Beinart and a panel of local rabbis. Emotions ran high but the discourse was civil, perhaps because of Rabbi Berk’s introduction, reprinted below, which laid out two simple rules for the evening: no demonizing or delegitimizing and no impugning or questioning the Zionist commitment of any individuals.

I want to thank J Street for bringing us our guest tonight; and on behalf of the leadership and members of Beth Israel I welcome all of you.

I want to begin with something I heard on the AIPAC rabbinic mission to Israel this summer during the war in Gaza. We were meeting with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, one of Judaism’s great thinkers, and he said he could summarize the entire Torah in about two sentences: God spoke to the children of Israel and said unto them, you shall do x, y, and z. And the children of Israel answered and said, No.

The point of the summary: God chose the Jewish people because God loves a good argument. And for 2,000 years we’ve given Him just that. We are an argumentative people, and that is one of the reasons we have done what no other people on earth have ever done: we survived 2,000 years of exile. To some, it may seem that the Jewish community is dysfunctional, especially in the way we argue over Israel. They may be right, but we’ve been that way for a long time, and ultimately it has served us well.

A core value of all this argumentation is that we do not believe that any of us are the sole possessors of truth. There are nuances, subtleties, shades of gray in the world. We Jews do really like a good argument, and we’re pretty sure that pleases God.

We argue with one another; but we do not demonize the other. The reason the Talmud is so darn long is that all the arguments mustered by both sides are recorded. Jews have always understood that to criticize another is an act of love; that’s why in one chapter in Leviticus we are commanded both to “reprove” our fellow and love our neighbor. Love and criticism in Judaism go together.

As a matter of fact, our rabbis teach us that we are not only supposed to respect and tolerate those Jews with whom we disagree, we are to love them. Or at least, we are not allowed to hate another Jew. The rabbis were serious about this. As they looked at Jerusalem smoldering in the ashes of the Roman fires, they concluded that an important reason for the destruction was that Jews hated each other.

Do not dismiss that teaching, as I used to, as rabbinic hyperbole. The rabbis were aware of how Jews can be, as we all know, our own worst enemies. The rabbis during the destruction of the Temple knew that too many Jews questioned the motives of other Jews, delegitimized them, demonized them. And that weakened the Jewish community and made it more susceptible to destruction.

Those who believe that certain views ought not be articulated in certain places, like a synagogue, really misunderstand what a synagogue is. Take this one. It’s called Beth Israel; the house of Israel. Those who named this congregation, the first in San Diego, did not call it the House of God. But the House of Israel; belonging to the entire community and welcoming all. They imagined this House of Israel as being a big tent that invited the airing of views and opinions to help us all grow and learn.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, an ardent Zionist and former leader of the Reform Movement, and somewhat of an expert on both Israel and North American Jewry, said this about conversations about Israel in America: “When congregations are at their best, members hold respectful debates, truly listen to each other, and speak personal truths without reprimanding those with whom they disagree.

“Those who argue that Diaspora Jews should not publicly criticize Israel’s government, particularly on policies pertaining to peace and security, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

“Zionism brought Israel into existence and bestowed upon Jews everywhere a role in determining the character of the Jewish state. While final authority rests with Israel’s citizens, whether Jewish or other, Israel invites Jews of every country in the Diaspora not only to visit frequently, contribute financially, and generate support for its policies, but also to engage in its affairs, participate in its debates, and offer criticism of its actions. Expressing criticism, even harsh criticism, requires no special permission from Israeli or Diaspora leaders; the right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission.

“In short,” Rabbi Yoffie concludes, “our role in upholding the Zionist vision is to offer Israel unconditional support—but that is not the same as uncritical support.”

Some of you may be dismissive of Rabbi Yoffie because of his liberal American politics. I assure you he is solidly middle of the road when it comes to Israel. But still, allow me to also share a few comments from a right wing Israeli politician; one who has mostly been against a two state solution but is now a bit more ambiguous; a Likud leader, who speaking about the atmosphere of hostility between those who were for and against the peace process and declared: “We are not prepared to triumph in the war on terror, only to fail in the struggle for our character. We are in the midst of an ongoing war against external enemies, but we must cease to regard each other as enemies from within.”

And, reflecting on the uncivil discourse that sometimes happens in America, this right winger politician said, “We’re all Zionist, but we think differently about what is best for Israel.” The differences in opinion among American Zionists “sometimes puts Zionism into a collision course. But nonetheless, anyone who thinks differently from me is still as much a Zionist as I am.”

Those words were said by the right wing president of the state of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and inspired by them, as the senior rabbi of this House of Israel, I proclaim the following two rules for tonight in our sanctuary: There will be no demonizing or delegitimizing of those with whom you disagree, and there will be no impugning the Zionism or love of Israel of those with whom you disagree.

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