Can the Jewish federation, J Street, New Israel Fund and AIPAC, representing dramatically different community perspectives, share a dais in Sacramento, set the stage for civil dialogue and survive to tell about it? Can a politically diverse Jewish community have a civil discussion about different ways of supporting Israel?
The answer, based on a recent event with nearly 100 participants from the Jewish community, is a resounding yes.
The Oct. 20 inaugural event of TICVA–The Israel Civil Voice Alliance, held at Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael on a beautiful Sunday with twice the number of expected participants, was an important step forward and a first for Sacramento.
A panel discussion was followed by a Q&A. TICVA then asked participants to break into small dialogue groups, sitting with people they didn’t know. This was a risky step, considering that the participants reflected a wide range of political and other interests — ranging from supporters of AIPAC and other Israel “guardian” organizations to spiritual progressives, synagogue and federation stalwarts, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Participants were asked first to listen to one another, without interruption, as each person described how he or she came to decide how to support Israel. An open exchange followed, with dialogue that was at times spirited but remained civil.
How did we get here?
Over the past decade in the Sacramento-Davis Jewish community, there have been several instances where the discourse on Israel, regardless of the specific issues involved, has become divisive, suppressive, contentious and downright uncivil.
None, however, matched the reaction to an invitation extended to judge Richard Goldstone to speak in Sacramento shortly after the September 2009 publication of his U.N. report on the 2008-09 Gaza War, which was very critical of Israel (Goldstone later recanted some of his findings). The vitriol became ugly and even hateful, tearing apart our community.
As an Israeli living in the United States, I have found it to be very disconcerting and rather painful to see such a lack of civility in my community when talking about Israel.
Our past experiences, including the Goldstone incident, helped us recognize the need for a civil discourse initiative in our Jewish community. This coincided with the Bay Area’s Year of Civil Discourse in 2012. We retained YCD co-founder Rachel Eryn Kalish to conduct what was a highly successful and well-attended communitywide weekend training: “Moving from Discord to Discourse in the Sacramento Jewish Community.”
Held in January this year, the program was organized by an intercongregational committee that included the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region and Jewish Community Relations Council. They were co-sponsors along with area congregations, the Leonard M. Friedman Bar Association and local elected officials. The level of interest, engagement and response clearly showed pent-up demand and desire in our community for open, vibrant, honest and, most of all, respectful civil dialogue on Israel-related issues.
TICVA grew out of that January weekend experience. Individuals from all bands of the political spectrum were invited to join the TICVA committee, provided they believed in and were committed to civil discourse on Israel in the Sacramento Jewish community regardless of their personal views. The committee adopted a mission: “To foster a respectful civil forum in the Jewish community for discussion, education and discourse on issues central to Israel in a safe and welcoming environment.”
Both the January weekend and TICVA’s programs have received kudos and high ratings from participants. But many people on opposite ends of the spectrum have criticized these efforts, with their criticisms based largely on hearsay.
TICVA participants remain committed to our mission, which we regard as critical to a healthy Sacramento Jewish community, one that cares deeply about ensuring that Israel thrives as a secure democratic Jewish state, living in peace and stability with its neighbors.
At our next program, from 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 10, TICVA will screen the Israeli Oscar-nominated film “The Gatekeepers,” followed by a facilitated dialogue. For more information, please email TICVA.SacDavis@gmail.com.
Dan Gorfain is chair of TICVA. He is past president and a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. He is the recipient of the 2013 Community Service Award of the Leonard M. Friedman Bar Association.