The Status Quo is We Don’t Speak about the Status Quo

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
June 21, 2013
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Recently, with a group of rabbis from across denominational lines, spanning various ages and geographic locations, all concurred: we are afraid to speak about Israel in public.  We all had different reasons for our apprehension, but we all agreed that it’s not something we’re comfortable speaking about.  I’m not even comfortable right now writing that I’m not comfortable writing this!  It’s a nerve wracking thing knowing that no matter what you say, you’re guaranteed to offend somebody.  It’s not unusual for controversial topics to elicit such emotions, but what is strange is that it is just culturally abnormal for us to stifle conversation when we don’t like the opinion.

Jewish culture is steeped in valuing debate and questioning, and our religious literature is filled with various statements encouraging us to respect variant opinions, i.e., elu v’elu divrei elohim hayim both of these are words of the living God. Yet, with Israel, we leave little room for respectful dialogue, let alone respectful disagreement.

What is so especially sad about this, is that it is not a secret – we all see it!  Left, right, center, Zionist, post-Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, religous, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, et al, secular, humanist, atheist, each and every one of us knows that our inability to speak holistically and respectfully about Israel is a huge burden for the Jewish people and a cancer eating away at our communities.  We do not have to agree, but we have to speak about it and we have to do so respectfully.  So why is it that a room full of rabbis of various affiliations and geographical locations all feel scared to speak about Israel in public?  Because we fear losing the trust our communities instill in us and, frankly, we fear for the security of our employment.

I, myself, was the victim of an attempted sabotage on my career because someone disagreed with my statements on Israeli politics. I know I am not alone.  This is an unacceptable development, especially in a tradition that values multiple perspectives on one issue. For those who speak out against what they see as serious and egregious human rights violations on the part of the Israeli government and military, there is an understanding that some of the greater Jewish community will abandon you.  For those who speak out passionately in support of the rights of the Jewish State to defend itself by any means necessary, there is an awareness that some of the greater Jewish community will judge you vociferously.

These may be unavoidable realities, yet we manage to have wider discussions, even controversial ones, about the influence of assimilation, the reality of intermarriage, the wide spectrum of Jewish observance, inclusion of the under-represented in our communities, just to name a few.  Are these conversations easy?  No, not by any means.  Yet we see their importance and the intrinsic value in hashing out the debate even if we know we will not come to agreement at the end of it.  And, by and large, we manage to do so with at least semblance of dignity and respect; but not so with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There may not be an easy solution, and there is certainly no quick fix, but the only place to start is to compassionately listen to those whom we disagree with, remember that the individual with whom we disagree is a human being deserving of dignity and respect, and that there must be some element of truth in their perspective even if we cannot see the whole truth.

The relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has also been one with a difficult balance to navigate.  Even in the Talmud we find rabbis declaring it forbidden to make aliyah and their students actively disobeying their rulings.  They discussed, debated and learned from the different approaches to Jewish living in the Jewish communities of Babylonia and the Land of Israel (see? I didn’t use the academically and geographically appropriate term Palestine because of fear of the reactions it might bring out…), and they did so respectfully even while disagreeing on some matters.

The bottom line is this, just because someone disagrees it does not make them a traitor or a fascist.  Just because a person just like you has come to a different conclusion on an issue does not preclude them from the right to dignity.

We owe it to ourselves, our communities, our heritage and our posterity to fix this problem as soon as possible.  We cannot ignore that with which we disagree, nor do we all have to see things exactly the same or even remotely the same.  But our tradition, and basic good manners, demands of us to elevate our conversation on this topic.  We serve nobody by silencing others or by submitting to the scare-tactics.  After all, how can we ever expect to make peace with others if we cannot even have the conversation to make peace amongst ourselves?

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

3 Comments

  1. The tragedy of the diaspora is that we have produced a generation of rabbinic leaders who no longer can be advocates for Israel. Putting the political / peace issues aside. It is hard to believe that there is nothing that our Rabbis can say about Israel.

    Perhaps they need to return and reconnect more often to our true homeland and see all there is to advocate for the support and identity with Israel

    Posted by
    Lili Kaufmann
  2. What a tremendous essay!!! Applicable to so many topics, and ALL religions. I am Catholic and dread certain topics for the self-righteousness invariably invoked. Thank you for this call to civility.

    Posted by
    Rachel Bourneuf
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