The woman to my left said she felt “overwhelmed” and “emotional” in dealing with the news about Israel’s war in Gaza. The heavy volume of postings on her Facebook page were so upsetting, with their criticism of Israeli actions, that she was considering “unfriending” some of her online correspondents.
The woman across the table from her, older than the rest of us, said she wasn’t a Facebook user but that she, too, felt “overwhelmed” in reading about the war and seeing it on TV. “I feel horrible for both sides,” she said. Admitting that her knowledge of the Mideast was sketchy, she said she had come in part to this evening’s communal dialogue, entitled “Israel Talks” and held at the JCC in Manhattan, to learn “more accurate information” about who started the conflict and why.
But the facilitator at the table, Jonathan Cummings, director of intracommunal affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York, patiently explained that the purpose of this two-hour pilot session was not informational; it was rather an opportunity for those present to share their feelings about the current Mideast conflict in a safe environment. (I was invited as aparticipant/reporter, agreeing not to identify attendees by name.)
Cummings is director of Israel Talks, a project of the JCRC created two years ago to promote dialogue and diversity in the New York community at a time when, its founders and many observers agree, the discourse on Israel is highly divisive, even toxic.
A few minutes earlier, before splitting us into small groups for roundtable discussions, Cummings and Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living, had introduced the program to the 50 or so JCC members who had signed up for the one-night event. They explained that it was intended to help people talk personally about Israel and share their experiences in grappling with the complexity and uncertainty of the current situation in Gaza.
Implicit in the introduction and in the underlying purpose of the project, is that Jerusalem today, in its politics and policies, can be a source of great pride and inspiration to some and a cause for deep embarrassment, and worse, for others. For many it is all of the above. And the latest round of war with Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, seemed to underscore the confusion in our community about the powerful need for Israel to protect its citizens from rocket attacks and tunnel invasions while at the same time invoking feelings of anguish and discomfort at the heavy loss of civilian life in Gaza.
Some of the roundtable discussions that night experienced sharp political differences, though ours did not. The four women and I at our table had been to Israel, and agreed that our primary concern in this conflict was security for its citizens. Several times the conversation turned to frustration with the international community’s seeming unwillingness to blame Hamas for the bloodshed, compounded by media coverage that often casts Israel in a negative light. Each time Cummings gently sought to bring the discussion back to our personal Israel experiences and feelings, and toward hearing each other carefully and respectfully. One goal of these talks is the pursuit of “mutual understanding rather than agreement or immediate solutions,” according to the definition of “dialogue” adopted by Israel Talks. The two-page explanation of the format, given to each of us to read and agree to, noted that dialogue is not debate.
The talk at our table was respectful throughout, with some poignant moments. One woman spoke of how annual visits to Israel in recent years with her husband, who had once lived there, had transformed her politics on the subject from dove to hawk.
“Israelis have to persevere,” she said. “They have the only Mideast country that is flourishing and giving back to the world, and everyone wants to take it away from them.”
Another, who described her “three-day-a-year Reform” upbringing, said she visited Israel alone last year and “cried every day,” becoming deeply attached. “We can’t take Israel for granted,” she said, and worries: “Will Israel exist in 15 or 20 years?”
But she added, about the current fighting: “Why do they strike at hospitals? Their mistakes are so painful.”
A third woman captured the internal struggle for many when she said that when she sees scenes of suffering in Gaza she turns off the television, aware that “I’ve turned off some of my sensitivity; I just don’t want to go there.”
In the end there were no great revelations or dramatic breakthroughs, at least at our table, but that was not the goal of the evening. It was, rather, to show that safe, guided discussions can be a way for members of our deeply divided community to sit down and talk — and listen — to each other about Israel. All too rare an exercise these days.
Rabbi Cohen of the JCC later said the feedback from participants was positive. “People found it cathartic, and appreciated the structure of the conversation,” she said, adding that the JCC hopes to continue to sponsor Israel-oriented programs in various forms.
One of my tablemates had suggested that future Israel dialogues include members of the Palestinian community, though another voiced skepticism about the lasting effect of such discussions. Cummings said the ongoing challenge for Israel Talks is “to have people listen and try to understand someone else’s views,” a problem magnified and intensified in the age of social media, with its hostile blogs and anonymous rants.
The JCRC project is continuing to expand its work in the fall with a series of ongoing discussions in several Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods, bringing together members of synagogues and other institutions.
It’s a shame that we’ve come to the point where we need a communal organization to foster respectful dialogue among Jews discussing Israel, which has become such a hot-button issue. But that’s the reality, so let’s hope the Israel Talks efforts are supported and bear fruit. If we can’t talk to each other, how can we communicate with the rest of the world?