I’ve heard it now from three different congregations: “Rabbi, how can we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our community? Everyone has such strong opinions that we fear a conversation on this topic would be too divisive. Yet it seems to us that we should talk about it. We need to be able to talk about it!”
It seems as if everyone has opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re an opinionated people. For us as Jews, this cuts close to home because it is about family and, when we discuss it amongst ourselves, we tend to feel divisions even more deeply and react more strongly than we would on almost any other issue — sometimes in very destructive ways.
Let me offer you my own journey: I grew up in a Canadian Reform Jewish home. I am first generation; we lost all our extended family in the Holocaust. We were strongly Zionist and saw Israel as the Jewish homeland, a dream come true, a haven if ever it was needed. For us, life stopped in 1967 and again in 1973, when Israel seemed threatened with extinction.
In 1973-74, I went to China on a Canadian government scholarship. My school in Beijing had students from all over the world. I met my first Palestinians and other Arabs there and for the first time heard the story of 1948 from their perspective. It was shocking to hear Israel described from their point of view.
I came to see Palestinian history as a mirror image of ours. Where we triumphed, they were defeated; where we celebrated independence, they mourned their tragic loss; where we built up the land, they lost their homes and property. Their stories humanized “the other” for me. I realized that “the enemy” had a human face; and that while some were indeed murderers, terrorists, and so on, most were ordinary men and women, just like us, struggling to survive in a hostile situation.
I came to understand that there are two rights in this conflict, not one right and one wrong. Sadly, advocates on both sides would have us — and the rest of the world — choose sides and decide whose right is superior. That is the way toward continued conflict, war and suffering.
Never again could I look at the conflict only from a political perspective, or a religious perspective, or any other perspective. Any solution, I now believed, had to begin and end with real human beings, our people and their people.
I believe we should always put the people first. By doing so we can focus on real human issues, such as access to water, housing, land rights and human suffering that can be worked on — and are being worked on — even in the absence of progress on the diplomatic level. Of course, all these things are politicized in the Middle East, but by putting the people first we can keep our priorities straight.
Ultimately, it is the people who live there who will make the decisions; it is they who will live with the consequences. But we do have voices and we can advise and cajole — not just our people but theirs, too. Not just Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but our government and other governments and the UN as well. I think that, as Jews, we ought to be pro-Israeli, pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-humanity.
What can I say that would be different and possibly helpful in your efforts to engage one another in dialogue? Here are some suggestions:
• Begin by hearing the story of the other, painful though it may be, false though it may ring to your ear. Accept it for what it is. Realize that it is not disloyal or dangerous to hear this point of view.
• Hope that your openness to the other is reciprocated. If it isn’t, that is their issue, not yours. As Jews, we are commanded to hear another’s grievance for alleged wrongdoing. I’m thinking of the commandments regarding giving and receiving criticism, but you can also recall the High Holy Day practice of hearing other people’s complaints against you and asking for forgiveness.
We are also urged by Hillel not to judge others until we stand in their place. This is our obligation, not theirs. All we can do is hope and pray that people on the other side will grow to become more open and sympathetic to our story as well.
• Realize that hearing different points of view, especially those within our own community, is good. Israel itself is stronger for its vibrant democracy, not weaker, and we should emulate the spirit of honest criticism and dialogue that informs its society — although we would do well to avoid the strong emotions that often accompany their debates.
Those who urge silence or seek to enforce conformity do neither Israel nor American Jewry any good, whether they stand on the right or the left. We’re just talking and that is good; it is healthy.
• Always strive to be respectful of the other person’s perspective. Again, we are taught: Judge your fellow on the side of merit — meaning don’t denigrate another person’s opinion by impugning their loyalty to the Jewish people or their alleged lack of empathy for others. Remember, our sages taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the groundless hatred that existed among Jews of that era.
Just as the Talmud honors diverse opinions and records dissenting opinions along with majority decisions, so too should we allow all views to be heard and aired.
Look for overarching points of unity with one another. Accentuate the positive. Repeat what we share in common on this issue as often as needed to remind ourselves that all Israel is connected one to the other.
• Unless your organization is a politically based group and advocates a specific stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, make it a safe haven that welcomes a variety of points of view. Many venues for political action exist on the right or the left, but not every organization needs to be politically involved. Instead, create a space that allows members to learn from one another, to formulate opinions, to listen to diverse points of view, and to debate in good spirit. If and when there is a political crisis, then you can choose how to get engaged.
• Finally, we shouldn’t be so darned serious about it all. Whether you are for one state, two states, or three, it doesn’t matter. These are just opinions. There are many miles between here and Jerusalem. What we say here, I guarantee you, has no effect whatsoever over there. The world will continue as before; the U.S.-Israeli relationship will remain strong; Israel will survive. So try not to feel threatened; try not to get upset. Enjoy the debate for what it is. Now let’s go out and have some good old argumentative, Jewish-style fun.