Challenging conversation on Israel elicits tough love

Conversations about Israel are often challenging — especially in the Bay Area, and especially among Jews.

That’s why the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael decided to host “Challenging Conversations About Israel,” a three-part discussion series co-sponsored by the Jewish  Community Relations Council and focused on Israeli policies at home and in the West Bank.

Some 60 people showed up on May 9 for the first installment, a lecture and guided discussion on the thorny issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

People break into small groups at Marin JCC forum on Israel. photo/arno rosenfeld

While the other two sessions this month will address domestic issues in Israel and the impact of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the Jewish state, this first evening was intended to provide a safe space to explore critical perspectives on Israel from within the Jewish community.

The event was open to the public but mostly attended by Jews, many of whom spoke of their trips to Israel and their great affection for the country.

JCC director of Jewish engagement Joanne Greene said she came up with the idea for the series at a program last spring about combating the BDS movement on campus. Afterward, she said, people told her they wanted to have more open-ended conversations about Israel, including contrary points of view.

“A number of people came to me and asked, why aren’t you also talking about when kids go to campus and they have issues with what’s going on in Israel? You didn’t make any space for criticism here,” Greene recalled.

The two-hour program began with a history of Jewish settlement in the West Bank by historian Eran Kaplan, the Rhoda and Richard Goldman Chair in Israel Studies at San Francisco State University.

His talk focused on the growth of the settlements following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967, and the country’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank. Most settlements were created in the six years following the right-wing Likud Party’s first ascent to power in 1977, Kaplan said, and contrary to popular belief, a majority of settlers then were attracted — as they are now — to the bucolic vision of living in spacious homes in the West Bank rather than the crowded apartment blocks typical in Israel proper. Early government slogans did not push the messianic vision of Jewish redemption that appeals to national religious settlers, Kaplan said, but instead celebrated that a certain settlement was “Five miles from Tel Aviv!”

Kaplan’s history made almost no mention of the Palestinians or how Israeli rule in the region has impacted them. His presentation was well received by the audience but did not escape rebuttal. One man demanded to know, “What’s the difference between occupation and spoils of war?” and another remarked that Kaplan’s assertion that most current settlement construction represents the “natural growth” of existing developments was overly sympathetic to Israeli government policies.

About half the audience stayed for the small-group discussion part of the evening, and those who did were largely opposed to government policies.

Of five people in one discussion group, four held negative views of Israel’s occupation, while one man said he was unsure what to think.

“I’m a strong supporter of Israel, but I’m sort of wavering,” he told the group. “I’m uncertain about my position on the settlements, but I would at least like to see them freeze the settlements… I’d like to see negotiations and a peace agreement, of course.

“That doesn’t mean I’m divorcing my self from any interest of support of Israel. I still feel very concerned about the survival of Israel as a thriving, democratic Jewish state,” he added.

Others in the group were less circumspect. One woman who said she had been on several trips to the West Bank offered a harsh assessment, saying, “It’s like the Jewish people in Israel have lost the ability to even think of or put themselves into the position of anybody else.” Her statement received pushback from others in the group, who said it was an unfair generalization.

One attendee noted that many in his discussion group had grown up with an image of Israel as “a land of milk and honey” but now feared for what he called “the Zionist soul.”

“There was consensus that the occupation has damaged how we individually and as a group feel about Israel,” another attendee reported after the discussion.

Civil discourse facilitator Karen Schiller, a member of the JCRC board, was on hand to help maintain a respectful space for the conversations to take place, but there were no disruptions or heated arguments of the kind that frequently materialize at Bay Area forums on Israel. Schiller noted it was likely a self-selecting group that showed up, which may have made for a cooler atmosphere.

“We all came together on the fact that we feel more comfortable being critical of Israel among ourselves than in the greater community,” one person said.

The final two events in the series are on May 16 and May 23, also at the Osher Marin JCC. For information, see www.tinyurl.com/challenging-conversations.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a freelance reporter. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.