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A Guide to Talking About Israel in Your Congregation

Introduction

For many reasons, discussions within the American Jewish community about the state of Israel - and more specifically, about issues relating to the Israeli - Palestinian conflict - tend to be contentious and heated. For this reason, it has become a topic that is often either avoided entirely or treated in simplistic ways. This is true both of the larger Jewish community and within individual congregations. Israel brings up many emotions for American Jews, and connects to deep issues including the experience of anti-Semitism, ambivalence around Jews and power, and conflicting feelings about Jews as victims and Jews as victimizers. As the only place in the world where Jews exercise power as Jews, and where Jews are visible in such a distinct way, it is not surprising that Israel and its policies become repositories for much of the Jewish "baggage" that we all carry, from the legacy of the Holocaust to ambivalence around Jewish identity. At the same time, Israel symbolizes much of what makes us proud as Jews, and has the potential to connect us profoundly to our history and our historic potential.

Because of the emotional complexity of dealing with Israel, opportunities for real dialogue and discussion of the critical issues facing the Jewish homeland have suffered. This "Discussion Guide" was created with the goal of having open and honest discussion within our Reconstructionist communities. Such discussion is worthwhile in and of itself, but is also essential in order to overcome the disconnect that many of our members feel from Israel. Such discussion will also, we hope, help promote our movement's active support of a Jewish state that is secure and living at peace with its neighbors, a place where democracy and pluralism can flourish. This goal comes directly out of our movement's support and love of Israel, as well as out of our commitment to Jewish values of peace and justice.

Why is this so hard?

As mentioned above, there are many reasons that talking about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any depth can cause great tension and dissension within Jewish communities. If we are going to be able, within our own congregations, to have productive conversations, we will have to learn to break through some of the misunderstandings and mind-sets that often provoke these tensions. This is not an easy or a quick process, and so any group starting out on this road needs to have patience and a willingness to tolerate some conflict.

1) Feeling Attacked Both "Left" and "Right"

One of the saddest by-products of the difficulties around discussing Israel is that many people end up feeling alienated or cut out of the conversation. This can happen to someone on either side of the political spectrum. Someone who is critical of Israeli government policy can feel as if they are being told they are not a "good Jew" or a "real Jew," that it is somehow traitorous to even bring up the subject of oppressive policies enacted by the Israeli government. Someone who feels supportive of Israel - even if s/he does not agree with everything that every Israeli government does -- can feel that they are being branded as a right-wing extremist if they dare defend Israel in a group that is predisposed to be critical. In either case, the end result is that we have split our community and made someone, or a group of people, feel silenced.

Ironically, both those who are critical of Israeli policies and those who are uncomfortable with such criticism often share one fundamental assumption: that the Jewish people, based on our history and our culture, are a people of high values and standards. For those who are pained by Israeli policy towards Palestinians, there is often a sense of profound betrayal of what they understand to be Jewish values of justice and compassion. For those who become defensive when hearing criticism of Israel, there is often an unwillingness to accept that a Jewish government could indeed take actions that are directly contrary to what they understand as Jewish ethical standards.

2) Jew as victim, Jew as oppressor

Another component of this complexity is the issue of Jews as oppressors/Jews as victims. For significant portions of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history Jews were victims of discrimination, hatred, and violence, facts which ultimately drove the Zionist movement to claim the right of Jews to once again exercise political power in our own state. I believe that for many American Jews it is painful if not impossible to admit (or even comprehend) that Jews might act as oppressors in relation to another people. Jewish discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often attempts, implicitly if not explicitly, to maintain our Jewish status as victims -- of Palestinian terror, of greater Arab anti-Semitism -- even in the face of the actuality of Israeli military might. This means that much of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vigorously denied, because to accept that reality would be to accept that Jews, just like any other people, can misuse power and cause harm to others.

Among those who are highly critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, there is often a mirror image of this attachment to the idea of "Jew as victim," which manifests as a deep discomfort with the very fact of Jews being in a position of power. In this case there tends to be strong identification with the Palestinians as victims. Whether left or right, the history and experience of Jewish victimization often distorts our ability to clearly see current realities, and our own feelings about Jewish power and victimization will play into our feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So How Do We Start Talking?

1) Creating a Safe Space

If your congregation is to have a productive, substantive discussion (and/or any kind of action) on these issues, you must create a safe space within which to begin that discussion.

A safe space does not mean a space free of all conflict or disagreement. It does mean a space in which each person feels that s/he can voice his/her opinion without fear of being personally attacked, where no one feels pre-judged or labeled and then dismissed.

A neutral facilitator is critical in such discussions. The rabbi can often be a good person to play this role, or a congregant who is skilled at facilitation and isn't perceived to have any particular agenda vis-à-vis this issue. When organizing a discussion, let people know that there will be a facilitator, and that attention is being paid to making everyone feel included.

2) Ground Rules

When you begin your discussion, you need to set ground-rules that will govern the discussion. One important ground-rule is asking people to make "I" statements instead of general pronouncements of "fact."

This is important because much of the difficulty in talking about this conflict stems from the vastly different perspectives on what we might think of as "facts" -- who started the conflict, who's to blame for what, etc. The Jewish narrative about the history of Israel and the Palestinian narrative about that same history are diametrically opposed, and thus it is really very difficult to talk about historical facts in any coherent way. Discussion can easily end up with people flinging contradictory "facts" at one another and at that point real discourse has ended. This is not to deny the reality of any particular person's experience, but simply to caution that broader statements about historical reality will depend on who is doing the telling.

This caution about historical fact extends to our attempts to talk about current realities. Here are some examples of "I" statements vs. statements in the guise of "facts":

  • "When I read about Palestinian suicide bombers I am horrified, and I don't understand how a community that encourages people to do such things could honestly desire peace" as opposed to "It's impossible to make peace with people who blow themselves up to kill innocent Jews."
     
  • "I honestly don't believe it will be possible to end this conflict without evacuating the settlements from the West Bank," as opposed to "the root of the entire problem is the settlers and the settlements."
     
  • Stated in these ways, people with different opinions are able to express their own opinion in a clear way while leaving room open for dialogue, questions, and different opinions.

Here are suggestions for other ground rules:

  • Affirm that everyone present means no harm to the Jewish people, and in fact is speaking from their own Jewish experience and connection to Judaism. There are no enemies here. No attacks on anyone's Jewish bona fides or allegiance to the Jewish people will be tolerated.
     
  • Avoid generalizing language about any group -- settlers, Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, etc. Be aware that anyone in your discussion group/congregation may have a loved one or acquaintance in any of those categories.
     
  • Take responsibility for voicing your own concerns, fears, etc., before reaching the point of anger. Each participant is responsible for his/her own reactions. If someone feels that they are getting agitated or angry, s/he should make an effort to identify what it is that is causing that reaction, and then voice that to the group. This is far more productive than waiting until you're ready to explode and then either lashing out or leaving in anger.
     
  • Don't be afraid to disagree. It's very important to make clear that the goal is not to stifle disagreement, but rather to have an open conversation that is productive and does no damage to anyone involved. Healthy disagreement is essential to understanding one another and to gaining a deeper understanding of the issues involved.
     

3) Exercises and Activities

Listening:

One of the hardest things to do is to listen, especially when we have a strongly held view. As an opening exercise to a discussion session, have people get into pairs, and ask each person to speak for a few minutes in answer to a particular question (it could be anything related to the issue -- talk about your first experience with Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; talk about what's most difficult for you right now with the current situation, etc.). As each person speaks, their partner's job is to listen and not say anything, but to do their best to really hear their partner without judging or coming up with a response. Then switch, and the talker becomes the listener, and vice versa.

An expanded version of this exercise is to get into small groups and have each person share his/her own personal history in relation to Israel and the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. The goal here is not to discuss but for the members of the group to understand as best they can what experiences, feelings, assumptions, etc., each person is bringing to the discussion. A good way to begin such an exercise is to ask people to draw, on a large sheet of paper, a "timeline" of their connection to Israel, noting key events in their relationship to Israel and the issue of Middle East peace. This is helpful in keeping personal presentations manageable and not overly long or unfocused.

Stimulate questions, not opinions:

Another way to begin discussion, either along with the listening exercise or on its own, is to have people voice questions that they have about the current situation. Questions are much less threatening than statements and a list of questions can help the group see where people's interests and concerns are.

Attention to language:

Ask people to be aware of which words or phrases ignite negative reactions for them. Often in these discussions we use code words that mean one thing to us but might have a different meaning or effect on someone else -- words like "Palestine," "Zionist," "occupation," "progressive," "right-wing," etc. If you notice yourself having such a reaction, stop and ask the person speaking what exactly they mean by that choice of words. Such an exploration can both deepen the conversation and avoid misunderstandings that lead to conflict.

Educate yourselves with materials that represent different voices and the different "narratives" that people tell about the conflict.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the history of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and bewildered by the barrage of conflicting "facts" that come from the different sides. Somewhere in between the distortions, exaggerations, and omissions that can be found in both Palestinian and Jewish versions of Israeli history, it is possible to discover some semblance of historical reality. While it is important to be educated on the issues and to have some sense of what might actually have "happened," it is also critical to have an understanding of the different narratives and where they are in conflict. If one community believes something to be fact, this belief will drive their actions, regardless of the historical veracity of the belief. In order to understand the roots of the conflict and to begin to imagine possibilities for its resolution, it is important that we understand what motivates those who are party to it. Personal accounts are the best for this purpose. One useful book for this purpose is David Shipler's Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in A Promised Land, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. Shipler, a New York Times reporter, both tells the history of the founding of the State of Israel from both Jewish and Arab perspectives and includes the voices of a wide variety of Israelis and Palestinians. While the book is obviously not up-to-date, it is a good background source. There is also a video of the book.

Similarly, you might suggest to everyone to make a concerted effort to understand the perspective/fears/aspirations of the party to the conflict with which you have the most trouble -- the settlers, the Palestinians, the Israeli government, etc. The intent here is not to necessarily change anyone's mind, but to come to a greater awareness that the various players in the conflict are not evil, but are acting from some motivation that to them is rational and even just.

Note: If your group is having a difficult time in these discussions, you might want to appoint someone as a kind of "conversation watcher." This person, who is not the facilitator, would not participate in the conversation but would watch and see when and how conflict arises, and then help the group becomes aware of these patterns. This could be enormously helpful in helping the group move through places where it gets stuck.

What About Taking Action?

While discussion and learning are important, very often we also want to take some kind of action. There is naturally a fear that if we make room for all opinions, it will be impossible to move to action.

I don't believe this has to be the case. The group, whether it is the entire congregation or a task force within it, has to decide whether it wants to achieve consensus -- which might indeed be difficult if not impossible -- or instead figure out a way in which individuals or sub-groups can take action in ways that feel appropriate to them. Thus, one group within the congregation could participate in a community-wide Israel Day celebration while another group helps organize a panel on human rights issues in the occupied territories. Whether either or both of these activities will be considered an "official" activity of the congregation is something that the Board will have to discuss. My own opinion is that the more activity, the better, and that it is commendable to model the possibility of diverse activity within one Jewish community. Your congregational Board will have to decide what kinds of activities it is comfortable sponsoring in the name of the congregation. For example, the Board might decide that educational activities can bear the congregation's name, while political activities can only be undertaken by individuals.

Another model would be for the group to come to agreement on certain principles (while agreeing to disagree on specific issues), and within those parameters create educational programs and take other actions. Arriving at such a set of principles could be a wonderful goal for a task force or discussion group, and potentially for the congregation as a whole.

Closing

In rabbinic tradition, to talk about something is to help sanctify it. There has never been a realm of Jewish life that has not been meticulously and passionately debated and discussed. The future of the state of Israel -- its moral, political, and physical future -- is of concern to all of us as Reconstructionist Jews. Let us join together in the holy work of debate and discussion, with the hope that new insights, greater understanding, and positive action will flow from our words.

May the Source of peace make peace for us, for all the inhabitants of the land of Israel, and for all who dwell on earth.

Type: Community Discussion Guide

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