I’ve never been to Israel. I’ve uttered that sentence — that admission — at least a few hundred times in my life. Since I started working at j., the conversation in which I state it usually goes like this:
Person I’m Interviewing: I was in the Negev, near — have you been to Israel?
Me: No, I actually haven’t.
PII: Oh! Well, you really have to go.
Me: I know, I definitely want to …
(Discussion of my Jewish upbringing, etc. It will now take at least 10 minutes to get back to the topic of the interview.)
However, while I haven’t traveled there, I do know more than a handful of things about the Jewish state. For instance: In the U.S., the word “Israel” can function like TNT in otherwise civil conversations.
I’ve seen it make enemies out of people whose political beliefs are otherwise completely aligned. I hear it in the voices of friends — both Jews and non-Jews — when the topic turns to international politics. I see it in comments from readers on our website. Things can get ugly at a truly fascinating rate.
All of which is why I took an interest in “Love, Hate, and the Jewish State: A Conversation on Israel and Social Justice,” a program held in May. It was billed as “a civil dialogue for Jews in our 20s and 30s to share our personal experiences about Israel and social justice.”
“We want to create a really safe space. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable talking, that no one feels they’re going to be judged or attacked for their opinions,” said Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, the director of the S.F.-based New Israel Fund’s New Generations program, which ran the event alongside more than 20 co-sponsors. Eilberg-Schwartz shared that with me a few days before the event, explaining why I couldn’t report on what was said over the course of the evening.
Other than knowing I wouldn’t be taking copious notes on what people were saying, I had no idea what to expect as I walked from j.’s office in the Financial District to the Hub space, located in the San Francisco Chronicle building. Inside, tables overflowed with appetizers as people poured in, pausing to greet old friends.
After some getting-to-know-you exercises, facilitator Eyal Rabinovitch had us split into small groups and asked us each to draw three pictures representing experiences that shaped our feelings on Israel. I thought for a while, then drew hasty cartoons of the moments that came to mind. Then we shared.
The drawings from each of the four people in my group were as different as could be. One mentioned feeling uncomfortable when her friend who made aliyah to serve in the Israel Defense Forces posted pictures on Facebook of himself posing with a machine gun. Another person had recently served in the IDF, and said his feelings about Israel were changing every day. While each person talked, we all listened and nodded. Rarely if ever have I seen the instruction “we are not here to judge anyone” work so well.
Afterward, the larger group brainstormed and voted on topics for discussion — things like “Jewish power and internal anti-Semitism,” “the environment as a unifying issue,” and a big one, “the Jewish claim to Israel.” We rearranged our chairs into smaller circles, and people were free to come and go from the group discussions.
“I came because a couple other people I knew from Moishe House were going, and it sounded interesting,” one participant who had just moved here from Chicago told me. Another young woman said she was there partially as research for a one-woman show she’s writing about her relationship to Israel.
Then I realized I was sitting next to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Eyal’s wife and a noted educator and Middle East peace activist.
“I’m here because the Jewish community is stuck when it comes to talking about Israel,” she said with a smile. “And that comes at a tremendous cost to our people. We’re at a place where it’s avoidance versus antagonism. That’s turning off potential allies — people are disengaging not just from Israel but from the Jewish community. The idea to is to create an environment where people feel they can actually talk.”
I don’t think one workshop has ever changed the world. But as I left that night, walking past small groups of people who hadn’t known each other two hours ago, yet who simply didn’t want to stop talking, I felt certain we had all gotten just a little bit unstuck.
Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com.