Thursday, April 3, 2014 | return to: views, opinions


Agree to disagree on Israel, then agree to keep talking

by steven j. zipperstein

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Mostly we talk with those with whom we agree. There is a palpable satisfaction in seeing those sitting beside us nod happily, finishing our sentences, relishing the movement of our minds. Those, in stark contrast, who react by questioning every statement — I know some such people, I suspect you do, too — these we tend to slip away from except, perhaps, at Passover seders, weddings and the like where the wages of kinship or obligation make such encounters unavoidable.

9_Vzipperstein_avatar_withnameHow much less likely is it to seek out conversation — or, as some might call it, dialogue — with those with whom we disagree about matters that cut the deepest, that most define who and what we are?

For me, there is no issue that cuts deeper than Israel.

I was raised in the religious Zionist youth movement; most of my closest high school friends live on the West Bank, several of them leading figures in the settlers’ movement. Bush and Cheney I dislike, Karl Rove and Marco Rubio as well, but with nothing comparable to the white heat I feel still for Yitzhak Shamir, decades after he stepped down from Israel’s helm, or the tightness deep in my belly that I experience when contemplating the prospect of Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett as Israel’s prime minister.

No other feature of Jewish life has so surfaced, in recent years in particular, as the ultimate test of Jewish credibility. Indeed, no other potential litmus test even compares.

Graze on whatever you want, on the street, on Yom Kippur deep in the afternoon just outside a synagogue immersed in plaintive, hunger-induced supplication — gastronomic slippage will do nothing to obstruct your election to the board of your local federation. And if Spinoza were around today, he’d never be cut off because of something so paltry, so abstract as disbelief in the immortality of the soul — probably he’d be named to a chair in Jewish studies. But if that same brilliant, asexual ascetic agreed to speak side by side in a public forum with someone sympathetic to BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), his Hillel chapter would drop him like a hot potato for fear of losing funding.

This situation, which feels like something imagined by Larry David, cries out for pluralism; for open, unfettered dialogue. And yet how can we demand such pluralism — as we must — when so many of us are, in truth, anything but pluralistic?

Writing this essay, I found myself sitting on the patio of a Berkeley café within earshot of a congenial, and also resolute, clutch of activists in their late 60s, petitions on their laptops. Among these good-hearted people, nearly every statement, it seemed, was normative, packed with judgments more than merely emphatic, better described as gospel-like. I listened as one of them related in some detail the one and only conceivable way in which to effectively brush one’s teeth. “Doing it any other way makes no sense,” the activist said.

Donors might, at times, bludgeon with fiscal threats. A student leader from J Street’s campus arm, for instance, recently wrote how members of his organization typically hear such threats relayed to them by Hillel leaders.

“If I support the work you’re doing around Israel, we could lose a major funder,” Jacob Plitman, the president of the J Street U national board, wrote in the New York Jewish Week in December 2013. “It’s either you, or $50,000 that will benefit all your peers.”

This is intolerable. Yet some of us, armed with a far larger storehouse of ideas than worldly capital, know how to bludgeon, too. There is no symmetry between the two, certainly, but there is a typological resemblance.

It behooves us to recognize this. I know that it well behooves me. When speaking about my own views on Israel — on the interplay, for example, between democracy for all, human decency for all but also security for all — I try to recognize that all that I and anyone else (including most of Israel’s leading security experts, who have famously come out on the side of concerted negotiations) can provide are reasonably educated guesses.

The best scenario is the one that stands out amid a medley of fraught alternatives. This ought to militate against unabashed dogmatism, against the inclination to declaim, against the predisposition to live, as do so many of us, in political echo chambers like the one I watched with such fascinated unease at the Berkeley coffeehouse.

An age of mutually incompatible certainties — this sometimes is how it feels, the one begetting the other, infecting the other with some of its own toxins. Yet, as Chekhov once remarked, “Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.” The rest, you might credibly say, is dialogue.

Steven J. Zipperstein is the Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University. A version of this essay was delivered at a Lehrhaus Judaica forum on pluralism.


Posted by Michael Harris
04/04/2014  at  12:23 PM
No... and yes

Professor Zipperstein identifies two related, but separate issue. One is the dialogue within our community institutions. And to call for “open, unfettered dialogue” is not only unrealistic, it’s probably not what he’s actually seeking. Are we to open our synagogues and our Hillels to those who want to debate anti-Semitic tropes such as blood libels, or Jewish control of government?  Or, for that matter, to those who want to active proselytize us to convert to Christianity or Islam? Of course not. But that’s what “open, unfettered dialogue” can include.

Our community consensus excludes such dialogue from the institutions that we, as a community, support both by membership and by donation.  Our community consensus also, in the Bay Area, excludes those who oppose the existence of the Jewish, democratic state of Israel—whether they support the physical violence of Hamas terror or the verbal and economic violence of the BDS movement. The goal of those who peddle this type of hate is not dialogue; they have thoroughly and repeatedly demonstrated this at every campus and other setting where BDS resolutions have been introduced. Their goal is to subvert these organizations to the will of the BDS movement, regardless of the consequences for campus climate or food co-op management.

Therefore, the question is not whether there will be limits on such dialogue within our community institutions; the question is where those limits are set. In the Bay Area, those limits do not—and should not—exclude groups such as J Street that are very critical of Israel’s government while simultaneously supporting Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people. There was a highly successful dialogue event last fall at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek between me and J Street’s Gordon Gladstone. We had very different opinions on how best to reach the goal of a Jewish state of Israel living in peace and security—but the goal itself was not in question.

However, Prof. Zipperstein is absolutely right that dialogue in a public forum should not create a similar problem. As readers know, I have offered to debate—in the pages of J Weekly— leaders of “Jewish Voice for Peace”. I’ve appeared on radio alongside Richard Becker, the West Coast leader of International ANSWER whose “anti-war” rallies routinely feature signs, groups and speakers promoting not only anti-Zionism but overt anti-Semitism. Activities such as this should not create any problem—unless you have a leader of a Hillel, or a Federation, or other Jewish community group SUPPORTING anti-Israel efforts such as BDS.
In truth, we need more, not fewer, opportunities to challenge the lies promulgated about Israel by BDS advocates.

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Posted by craven_maven
04/09/2014  at  09:10 AM
Obama & Kerry Are No Friends of Israel

Talk to whom, about what?

The Arabs have proven over and over, for decades, that they have no interest in peaceful coexistence with Israel or even ever recognizing the right of Israel to exist.  The Arabs are merely prolonging the pretense of the so-called “peace talks,” with the tacit permission of the Obama administration, in order to extract more prisoner releases from Israel. Under pressure from Kerry and Obama, Israel has already released three groups of Arab murderers and terrorists without getting anything in return. This one-sided, futile and unfair fake diplomacy is being conducted under the auspices of the Obama administration.  Israel is blamed, while the Arabs make demands and give nothing:

“Israel ‘Deeply Disappointed’ by Kerry’s Remarks on Peace Talks”

By signing 15 international conventions last week, the Arabs have clearly made known their intentions to unilaterally bypass any negotiations with Israel. The Arab game plan is to pretend to be a legitimate state and harass Israel to death on the international stage, most particularly by accusing it of war crimes in the International Criminal Court, this as missiles and rockets continue to rain down on Israel from Gaza. Why is this happening now, rather than years ago? Because the Obama administration lets it, because it has failed to apply international pressure to keep it from happening, and because it fundamentally sympathizes with the Arab side.

And almost weekly we see editorials in the “J. Weekly” in support of a “peace process” which not only does not exist, but is being used to hurt and delegitimize Israel.

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