It is both heartening and sad that the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has initiated and drafted a statement calling on the community to engage in civil discourse when discussing and debating issues about Israel.
Heartening that the JCRC is acting to respond to the increasingly disturbing level of name-calling of Jew against Jew in claims to represent Israel’s best interests, and sad that such action is necessary. But it is.
Geared to appear on the 9th of Adar (corresponding to March 10 this year), a day marking the respectful debates between the students of Hillel and Shammai in the days of the Talmud, the “Israel Talks Leadership Statement” notes that differences over Israel today “too often serve as a cause for American Jewish communal discord and even acrimony.” Its signatories, a wide variety of local Jewish leaders numbering 140, and growing, pledge to “treat others with decency, honor and resilience, be curious about our differences and cherish what we have in common, even if we agree to disagree with each other.”
The statement is the initiative of The Israel Talks, a project of the JCRC and UJA-Federation of New York. It creates a forum for discussions in participating communities for people from diverse backgrounds around the topic of Israel, and offers micro grants for related projects.
Jonathan Cummings, who has directed the program since last summer, said the goal was not consensus but “constructive conflict,” rooted in Jewish tradition.
Among the Israel Talks steering committee of about 30 people who spent weeks drafting the statement were Rabbi Avi Shafran, who affiliates with Agudath Israel (he signed on, however, as an individual) and Rabbi Lester Bronstein, a Reconstructionist. The only contentious issue, according to Rabbi Shafran, was about “where the line should be drawn regarding what points of view on Israel can be legitimate parts of a civil, acceptable debate. BDS supporters? Neturei Karta?”
He said the decision was “to leave the question unaddressed, but that’s not a fatal flaw. Any broadening of Jews’ willingness to listen objectively and with good will to any other points of Jewish view,” he reasoned, “is a good thing.”
Rabbi Bronstein said that a point of tension from the outset was that, as a consensus document, The Israel Talks statement would be “pareve,” in his words, and have little impact on the public. But he and the others agreed it was of value to say that Jews “should be civil in our disagreements.” And Cummings maintains that passion in one’s views and courtesy in engaging in dialogue can be compatible.
We encourage our readers to read the full statement at www.theisraeltalks.org, see the list of those who have signed, encourage other leaders to sign, and sign on themselves. It may not change the world but it can change how we deal with each other, and that would be an achievement in itself.