Support the news

Reclaiming A Heritage Of Debate

Julie Wittes Schlack: An increasingly polarized American Jewish community must find ways to directly discuss and debate the conflicts in the Middle East -- our identity depends on it. (Steve Rhodes/flickr) MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: An increasingly polarized American Jewish community must find ways to directly discuss and debate the conflicts in the Middle East -- our identity depends on it. (Steve Rhodes/flickr)

In the last few days I’ve read two excellent essays about extremism and intransigence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu’s invocation of "the race card," and his unholy alliance with the Republican Party. But so far, I haven’t posted links to either David Remnick’s editorial nor to Richard North Patterson’s in any of the social media sites I frequent. The dialogue between Jews about Israel and Palestine has become so fraught that many of us are backing off from having it with anyone who might not already share our views.

The irony of being a self-censoring Jew is almost crushing. Argument as a means of expression and enlightenment was a central feature of the culture I grew up in, as much a given as progressive politics, wry wit and certainty about which bakery had the best rye bread. Talmudic scholars thrive on dissent, and even today, when someone reads from the Torah, someone else stands next to them and follows along, ready to debate and correct.

The dialogue between Jews about Israel and Palestine has become so fraught that many of us are backing off from having it with anyone who might not already share our views.

But the endless, futile cycle of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists and brutal Israeli retaliation; of peace talks embarked on in grudging bad faith, then abandoned with histrionic blame and self-absolution; of existential threats both to Jews around the world and to Palestinians unfortunate enough to be living in Gaza — the whole sickening, heartbreaking routine has not only polarized the North American Jewish community, but led us to an unfamiliar silence. Our dinner table dialogue skirts these issues unless we’re confident that we’re with others in our camp. Instead, it’s being replaced by speeches by high-profile proxies, by competing decibel levels at the AIPAC vs. J Street conferences. For the first time in our lives, many of us are reticent to debate politics with our friends or even family, afraid that our disagreement over Israel will reveal a breach in values so fundamental as to shake our faith in each other.

Two Demonstrators argue, one supporting Israel, left, and another supporting Palestine, right, in front of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Two Demonstrators argue, one supporting Israel, left, and another supporting Palestine, right, in front of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

I admit, I’ve never gone to Israel, though less from an active desire to avoid it than from the fact that my travel times and funds have been limited, and other countries and cultures have interested me more. Perhaps if I had, it would have transformed my views in ways more profound than I can imagine. But my visits to the Jewish ghetto of Prague, to Dachau, to the lone surviving synagogue in Dubrovnik — those were my pilgrimages. I’m not particularly observant; my Jewish identity is forged much more by history and culture than by religious faith. It’s informed by a childhood in which teaching and self-expression were as essential as chicken soup, ideas were the most valued weapons, family was sacrosanct, and the biggest lesson learned from our the length of our history was that as Jews it was our special responsibility, indeed our honor, to oppose intolerance and oppression wherever, against whomever, it was manifested.

Not since I was a child in Hebrew school raising money to plant trees in the desert have I felt Israel to be especially relevant to my identity as a Jew. That’s changing, but not in a good way. Recalcitrant, right-wing Israeli politicians and sympathizers — Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman and others of their ilk — they are stealing my heritage. Netanyahu’s flagrant pandering to the most reactionary among his countrymen, his willingness to use and be used by House Speaker John Boehner for cheap, transient political gain, the deeply disturbing alliance between intolerant evangelical Christians and Israeli right-wingers — all of these forces and people are appropriating and warping what Judaism has meant to me.

[As Passover approaches,] we must find a way to once again debate these questions with spirit, love and a renewed embrace of the values we were raised with.

I was never taught to trade empathy for expediency. No rabbi or teacher or parent ever told me that it was okay to align myself with those who preach selfishness and practice intolerance on the grounds that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." No, the one mantra that has always defined my cultural identity is Rabbi Hillel’s famous injunction that, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

I don’t know if I believe there should ever have been a Jewish state, but there is one, and I do believe that the people dwelling there, dwelling anywhere, have the right to live free from missile bombardments and terrorist bombings. But I also believe that Israel cannot retain all the territory it has acquired, remain predominantly Jewish, while also remain a democracy. Something — someone — has to give, even if it means a people loses some land to save its soul.

Passover, the most explicitly didactic of Jewish holidays approaches. And as preparations for the Seder, the longest and most conversational of ritual meals begin, we must find a way to once again debate these questions with spirit, love and a renewed embrace of the values we were raised with.

After all, if not now, when?

Related:

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news