As the daughter of a rabbi, I was always taught that temple was a home for all Jews, a place that embraced debate, argument and difference. Yet after attending a recent debate at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., between acclaimed legal scholar Alan Dershowitz and J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, I was forced to reconsider that notion. I had never felt so much a stranger within my own community.
I attended the debate as a student leader of Just Peace, the J Street U affiliate at Columbia University. I was hoping for an evening of thoughtful conversation that addressed the current negotiations. Instead, the evening devolved into a squabble. Ben-Ami was greeted by hisses. When he introduced the J Street staff, they too were booed. The moderator, rather than enforce civility, repeatedly attempted to corner Ben-Ami.
Following the contentious debate, an elderly woman confronted me in the synagogue lobby. “I should spit on you!” she yelled at me in front of a group of shocked onlookers. “Excuse me?” I replied. Glaring, she taunted: “Are you a Palestinian? You must be a Palestinian!” The woman’s friend pulled her away. My friends from Columbia University held my shoulders as tears streamed down my face. No one could believe what had just happened.
Those hateful words were, no doubt, the ravings of a fanatic. Yet the woman only confirmed what I had felt throughout the night: that I was a stranger, an outcast, and that my presence in this conversation not only undesirable but threatening.
What was it that proved so horrifying to that woman and those that hissed at Ben-Ami? Was it his statement that all Jews should be troubled by the conditions of Palestinians living under occupation? Was it his insistence that placing of blame on one side or the other is counterproductive? Was it his defense of students, like me, who are concerned about the occupation, but fear that honesty will put them on the periphery of our community?
Growing up in small-town Wisconsin, temple was always the place I could count on for community. I was taught that throughout history the synagogue served as a place where Jews congregated in times of great joy, and gathered when faced with adversity. The sanctuary is supposed to be just that — a place of refuge that must be protected. Yet, Jewish history and tradition suggest that argument and debate are not threats to our community. Vigorous disagreement is, rather, central to the community’s strength.
In the Talmud, the rabbis tell us that the First Temple was destroyed because of the sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. “But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity?” the rabbis ask. They answer: “Because therein prevailed hatred without cause … groundless hatred, sinat chinam, is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.” (Talmud, Yoma 9b)
The Jewish people were of course forced into exile after the Second Temple’s destruction. In exile, the rabbis responded to the hatred they left behind by creating a tradition of critical conversation and debate. Codified in the Talmud, these arguments are among the most cherished texts in Judaism today.
At this crucial moment in the history of our community, we face a choice. We can choose to let baseless hatred divide us, or we can choose to take our inevitable disagreements and shape them into a fruitful, influential dialogue. We can choose to pass on a legacy of openness to a younger generation — my generation — or we can tear our community apart by throwing out of the temple all who disagree.
I have given much thought over the last week about whether I can continue to be part of this conversation. If I am not welcome, why bother to fight for entry? It seems easier to leave than to justify my presence — and many of my generation might make that choice. For me, to leave the conversation would be to abandon my community and to abandon Israel, and I cannot do either. After my experience at last week’s debate, it has become clear to me that we must acknowledge the conflict at home if we are to have a productive conversation about the conflict so many thousands of miles away. We must reinvigorate our Jewish identity with the acceptance and love for our neighbor upon which it was founded — and not let the disagreements within our own community to turn to hatred. We can only change the conversation if students like me demand to be included, and ensure that no amount of scorn will silence us. n
Abby Backer is a student leader of Just Peace, the J Street U-affiliated group at Columbia University, where she is a student.