As the American Jewish community mimics the rest of America with ugly, polarizing political fights, calls for a “big tent” are becoming common. Partisans are pushing back, caricaturing calls for a big tent as lacking in principle or shilling for the status quo. But constructing a big tent that is open enough to welcome disparate voices, yet not so undefined that it has no mooring, takes great skill and vision.
The finesse required was on display earlier this month. AJC Access, the American Jewish Committee’s youth wing, convened a second annual conference with the Reut Institute, an Israeli action-based think tank, to try creating a big, broad, respectful conversation about Israel, left, right and center. Young Jews, mostly aged 25 to 45, from more than 30 countries, participated.
During an intense, four-hour marathon session on “Legitimizing Israel,” I suggested four poles necessary for building a civil Jewish tent when talking about Israel. Like Abraham’s tent, it should be open on all four sides, while nevertheless offering protection.
Start by acknowledging complexity. Despite being a messy muddle, the Middle East seems to invite the most simplistic sloganeering. Yossi Klein Halevi, my colleague at Engaging Israel, a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says that the Israeli right fails by ignoring the first intifada’s lessons — that the Palestinians are a people with rights to self-determination, which must be respected. The Israeli left fails by ignoring the second intifada’s lessons, that Palestinian political culture is possessed by annihilationist impulses. Until Palestinian leaders become more committed to building their own state rather than destroying Israel, peace will remain elusive.
Secondly, we should build identity, mounting what Donniel Hartman of Engaging Israel calls a “Jewish values conversation about Israel.” Last summer, after I wrote two articles critical of J Street in the Jerusalem Post, I nevertheless was invited to address J Street U’s student mission to Israel. Using the Engaging Israel methodology, which entails drilling down to core issues while carving out open, respectful space for dialogue, I hosted the students in my home, and began the conversation by exploring the question of why we need a Jewish state. Having studied fundamentals together, and having forged a broad consensus about Jewish identity that requires expression in state form, we could then start debating borders and tactics with no acrimony.
More broadly, we have to stop only experiencing Israel as a country that needs our support. We have not fully recognized how Israel’s existence enhances Jewish identity worldwide — or how Israel helps solve our existential dilemmas as human beings and as Jews in a stressful, confusing modern world. This kind of Zionism highlights consensus and spotlights values, while ending the constant obsession with Israel’s headaches.
Thirdly, we also must not be afraid to define our community. We should develop “red lines” and “blue and white lines,” meaning ideas we repudiate and principles we champion. Two years ago, a group that I was a part of, ranging from left to right, worked together to define common parameters. The document we produced came easily. We all affirmed our beliefs in Jewish nationalism, Jewish statehood, and mutual respect. And we agreed on red lines, such as not accusing Israel of racism or apartheid, and, more generally, not trying to refight the 1948 war about Israel’s right to exist, rather than the 1967 war about Israel’s borders.
Connected to this is the fourth and final pole, recognition of the toxicity that emerges from the systematic Arab attempt to delegitimize Israel. We are all scarred by living in the age of delegitimization. The Zionist left, in particular, should start getting angry at the delegitmizers, recognizing just how much delegitimizing Israel harms the peace process.
In building this tent, my advice is: acknowledge complexity, because nuance matters; engage Jewish identity issues, because values matter; define our community, because boundaries matter; and condemn the delegitimizers’ toxicity, because words matter.
In concluding the conference, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, eloquently explained why AJC convenes a big tent and cultivates a strong center. “We are more effective, we are more intelligent, we are more credible, when we listen hard to reasoned sides of the complex Israel issue before speaking up,” he said. Harris said the stakes couldn't be higher, and, simplistic, doctrinal thinking doesn’t help advance the discussion; the argumentative Jewish tent should not an echo chamber, but must embrace civility and mutual respect.
This big tent approach appreciates that, as Harris noted, Israel is both a modern-day miracle and a work in progress. And it recognizes that over the millennia, Jews have created what he calls “the consummate guilt culture,” which is now applied obsessively to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have developed “the consummate blame culture,” which then preys on us so perfectly. The big tent approach notes the growing shrillness and polarization in American political culture but says, “We can do better.”
Gil Troy is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.