Silence Amid a Famously Garrulous People

November 1, 2012
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Daniel Sokatch

In the summer of 2008, I left my position as founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which describes itself as a “progressive voice in the Jewish community and a Jewish voice in the progressive community,” to become CEO of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in San Francisco, which describes itself as “the central address in the Jewish community.”  I wasn’t particularly worried about having to obfuscate about my progressive views at the federation; after all, the board knew who I was when they hired me. And as it turned out, I felt free to say what I wanted. I was the CEO. I left federation after only a year, when I was asked to head up the New Israel Fund; I was drawn by the challenge of running an organization that works to support democracy and social justice in Israel at such a critical time.

The freedom of expression I felt was not necessarily supported and shared within the Jewish community. On my first day of work at federation, I got into a crowded elevator to go to my seventh-floor office. By the time we reached the sixth floor, there were only two of us left — a senior staff member and me. As the doors slid shut, she leaned in close and, with a big smile, whispered: “I’m so glad you’re here; I’ve been a BIG supporter of PJA for a long time!”  After thanking her, I told her she needn’t whisper her acknowledgement. The encounter was touching and sort of funny, but the fact that this veteran, dedicated communal worker felt that she had to live as a closeted progressive Jew at the Jewish federation — in San Francisco, no less disturbed and astonished me.

On another occasion, I met with a group of several dozen rabbis — including very senior members of the community — who voiced fears about discussing Israel in anything more than the most perfunctory ways within their congregations. These rabbis did not hold particularly radical views; in fact, to a person, they were all deeply connected to and concerned about Israel. But fear that expressing their heartfelt views on Israel and the challenges the state faces might divide the community or alienate important congregants kept them from engaging in meaningful conversation about Israel in their synagogues.

In the year I spent at federation, I had a number of such encounters. To be clear, the federation had no policy or practice of asking employees to self-censor or avoid talking about potentially contentious issues, and I’m sure very few of our synagogues or Jewish organizations do, either. But people self-censor anyway. And, as ironic as it is, given the freewheeling nature of the American Jewish communal debate, this culture of cautious self-censorship is pervasive — and detrimental. Usually, but not always, the self-censoring takes place in conversations about Israel.

But why the uncharacteristic restraint and silence on such a big issue in the heartland institutions of a famously garrulous people? Why are our workers whispering in elevators, and our rabbis talking behind closed doors about how they can’t talk about Israel?

In a way, it isn’t really surprising. The subject of Israel is one of the most fractious subjects of conversation for the American Jewish community. It’s hard to talk about it at the Shabbat table, let alone from the bima or in the workplace. And while there is no shortage of vibrant, Israel-focused organizations representing all points of the ideological spectrum, diversity on that conversation isn’t reflected inside many Jewish spaces.

I think a number of factors account for the development of this culture of self-censorship. I’ll briefly address two of them. First, wealthy donors have power. Some major donors in the Jewish community hold very conservative views on Israel, and more liberal rabbis and communal workers often don’t want to risk antagonizing funders with whom they disagree. Of course, this fear is often unfounded: Many donors would never think of tying their support of, say, the local JCC to the Israel opinions of the speakers the center hosts, or their support of the synagogue’s capital campaign to the nature of the rabbi’s High Holiday Israel sermon. But some donors would, and do. Some donors choose to use their power by making their support contingent upon an institution’s doing or saying — or not doing or saying — certain
things vis-à-vis Israel. And when the leaders of Jewish institutions make that deal, however unwillingly, in order to receive the funding, those who work for them get the message loud and clear: Opinions that run counter to those of the institution’s donors are best left unspoken.

Second, many of our Jewish institutions describe themselves as consensus-based, “big tent” organizations. When it comes to Israel, they have, for most of the past 64 years, found it fairly easy to adhere to the official line from Jerusalem without challenging that consensus. But in recent years, disagreements between Israel and the United States — including many in the largely liberal American Jewish community — have become more pronounced over a number of issues. Concerned about the dangers of a damaged consensus, we have avoided serious conversations when real disagreements emerge about how best to engage with and support Israel. It seems that avoidance is the safer path, and that avoidance, too, trickles down.

Our institutional leadership could reasonably argue that nobody is telling communal workers to hide respectful opinions on Israel, even if they deviate from the communal “party line.” But it is so much more complicated than this. Avoidance, fear, and picking up cues from the communal culture are having an impact and creating a “silence.” Over the past few years, I’ve spoken with many Jewish community leaders who, though they privately expressed support for a more lovingly critical and honest relationship between American Jews and Israel, do not feel they can speak publicly about their feelings. It is fascinating and troubling that so many liberal American Jews, lovers of Israel, feel that they must remain closeted as progressives in the Jewish workplace. When the culture of money and a panicked pursuit of a consensus that no longer exists serve to chill speech, when tochacha — loving constructive criticism — no longer feels safe or welcome; when two Jews can have three opinions on anything except Israel — then we have a problem.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Editor,
    Politically progressive Daniel Sokatch portrays the criticism he and his previous and current organizational connections have made or even attempted to make concerning Israel as some sort of underground resistance effort, characterized by whispered conversations in elevators or boardrooms, and complains of self-censorship (“Silence Amid a Famously Garroulous People” Sh’ma, November 2012). To his thinking, diversity on the Israel-conversation “isn’t reflected inside many Jewish spaces”. While I can in no way suggest that I have enough establishment, non-establishment or even anti-establishment experience to compare with Sokatch, I would nevertheless opine that what Sokatch is doing would seem to be a misrepresentation. From the out-borders of groups actively seeking to undermine Israel’s diplomatic and political position, its security and its economic requirements, some of them funded by the New Israel Fund, to the Jewish community councils and on to the inner sanctums of Jewish communal intermeshing, there is no silence but rather a roar of finger-pointing and a loud very public conversation that seeks to denigrate Israel using the embarrassment factor to the extreme.

    To purport the massive, well funded, well publicized and well diversified campaign to counter the policy choices made by a democratically elected government, supervised by a High Court for Justice, and reviewed by a free press in Israel is preposterous.

    Sokatch’s Israel is polarized between a “forward-thinking, outward-looking, democratic and prophetic vision enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence” and a “harsh, exclusionary ultra-nationalism”. The hype may be a helpful instrument to raise funds from well-meaning but naive and ill-informed Jews but it is a deprecatory slur. His support for the campaign to avoid any monitoring of the so-called “human rights” groups, even legislation much less harsh than that in place in America, is indicative of this semi-Janus-like posturing where on the one hand, Israel’s democracy is supposedly either in danger, threatened and deteriorating yet, on the other, always seems to get things right. I would put it that if there is anything truly anti-democratic in this ‘dialogue’, between liberal/progressive American Jews and Israel, it is the heavy hammer of incessant criticism in the pages of the leading newspapers as ads or opinion pieces; in outbursts at assemblies where Israeli politicians speak, or attempt to speak; in the funding provided for groups seeking to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish-Zionist geopolitical entity; as well as many other aspects of a decidedly malicious effort.

    Yisrael Medad,

    Posted by
    Yisrael Medad
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