Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How We Talk about Israel

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Jewish Dialogue about Israel
Yeah, I doodled. Don't judge.
Around the time of Brant Rosen' resignation, I read several articles about rabbis who are allegedly unable to criticize Israel for fear of alienating or angering their congregants. I have no doubt this is true in some congregations, but this can't be true everywhere. It certainly isn't true in mine despite what played out in the media. But still, it's been a while since we've had a large-scale community conversation about Israel.

Roughly 100 members of our synagogue recently gathered to discuss Israel. Thanks to JRC's Israel Program Committee with assistance from the Jewish Dialogue Group (JDG), it was a calm and reasonable affair.

I want to share more about the event because I think it's a great model for other congregations. That said, I am aware that in within the confines of some Jewish organizations any criticism of Israel is considered heresy. This, in my opinion, is unfortunate. Just as we Americans criticize our government when it falls short, we can be critical of the Israeli government.

Of course, that's one of the questions that came out of an evening filled with many more questions than answers. What role can Americans take in Israeli politics? To what degree is it our place to do so? And yet, can we ethically turn a blind eye to some of what is happening over there regarding things like human rights violations?

Back to the program, JDG, whose acronym ironically looks a lot like "judge" is all about listening and not judging, especially in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations. They seek to get Jews talking across political lines to build relationships, clarify concerns, and hash out feelings, though the program wasn't as touchy-feely as it may sound. JDG mainly works in synagogues and college campuses in the US and Canada, but their work also takes them across the pond.

Basic ground rules for the evening included a reminder to keep the event focused on Israel and not about our rabbi's recent resignation, which, for many, is tied in to the topic because he influenced people's feelings about Israel.

We were asked to think about our relationship to Israel, our stories about Israel and the values expressed in or behind such stories.

We were reminded the evening was not about right or wrong or coming to consensus, but simply listening to one another with the stated goal being to understand others and deepen our own thinking. As Stephen Covey would say, "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood." It's not always comfortable to withhold judgement and listen, but that was our charge.

By the way, I feel comfortable writing this post because the stated confidentiality rules noted that it's okay to share our experiences from the dialogue as long as we don't identify specific individuals.

Before we broke into small discussion groups (a necessity given the large crowd), three congregants shared their stories of Israel. Each speaker spoke of an evolution in their feelings about Israel leading, often, from a deep sense of pride in, love of, or admiration for the Jewish state to a sense of concern or discomfort with the current state of the state's affairs.

For one speaker this meant a lot of questions without answers. For another, it led to involvement in the boycott and divestment movement based on the idea that until Israel is in pain, it won't make the changes needed to end the current political situation. (P.S. I plan to buy gifts form Israel for Hanuka this year. Soda Stream, anybody?)

Overall, it was an encouraging evening, but even at 2+ hours, it felt too brief.

Here are a few of my take-aways:
  • I'm proud that my congregation held this an event and that it was so well attended
  • This was an overdue dialogue (though worth noting that it was being organized prior to the rabbi's resignation)
  • Many of us have a special relationship with Israel, but are struggling with the political realities and what they mean for the country's future
  • Our community is strong despite unpleasant fallout from Brant's surprise resignation
I heard a comment at the dialogue that I've heard a few times in recent weeks, "Brant did the thinking/acting for me." Whether the issue was Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigrant rights, or labor issues (I think those were his Big 3), Brant took the lead and congregants could follow along if they chose. Now many people seem to be feeling more accountable for educating and acting on the social or political issues that matter most to them.

The Israel Program Committee is hard at work on another program for next month. It's not a continuation of this one, but it's certainly related. One of the ground rules of the JDG event was not too assume that the dialogue would continue or that a given participant would choose to continue it. I'd like to see it continue, though.

I want to thank the committee for a job well-done. I also want to thank the 14 or so small group facilitators who, in their commitment to serving as neutral sounding boards, willingly passed on their chances to share their own thoughts and feelings that evening.

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