Two events one week apart: Which represents St. Louis Jews?

I recently attended two programs dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The audience reactions were a dramatic study in contrasts that disturbed me greatly. I am not a member of any of the organizations presenting the programs. I attended each to listen and learn.

The first, on Nov. 13, was a well-publicized open discussion with four former Israel Defense Forces soldiers representing “Breaking the Silence,” sponsored by J Street St. Louis and hosted by Congregation B’nai Amoona. The soldiers each related incidents that happened during their military service, which bothered them ethically. They did not condemn the whole IDF or the Israeli government. They spoke gently and did not scream or shout. They expressed their personal feelings that “The Occupation” was not true to the soul of Israel. They disliked certain aspects of the military orders that they had to obey. They were sincere, polite and expressed their continued love of Israel.

 The audience was not polite. Some shouted as each soldier gave his or her testimony. Cries of “liar” and “traitor” were the mildest of many insults thrown at them. Rabbi Carnie Rose asked the people to please show respect and be silent. The din continued. A commentary in the Light before the meeting condemned Breaking the Silence and questioned whether or not they should not be allowed to speak in Jewish communities. Many of the supposed questions turned into long tirades of disagreement with the speakers. The evening ended with bitter divisions between those who came to support the speakers, those who came to boo the speakers and those who applauded the speakers to show their support for freedom of speech. 

The second meeting on Nov. 21, sponsored by Shaare Emeth and the Jewish Community Relations Council, featured two speakers from a group called Roots/Shorashim/Judur. One was Orthodox Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, with full beard, wearing tzitzit, etc. and the other was a Palestinian named Shadi Abu Awwad. Schlesinger told how he had made aliyah at the age of 18, settled in Judea and Samaria in Alon Shevut, Gush Etzion. A few years ago, he realized that he never had a meaningful discussion with a Palestinian, even though he had lived near them for many decades. The Palestinians were “the other,” the ones to be feared. He became involved in a small group that had started near his home. He related how this changed his life and opened his eyes to the fact that Palestinians lived in the land that they called Palestine and he called Judea- Samaria. He viewed his home as being in Israel while the Palestinians considered it a settlement in their land. 

His partner in the program, Shadi Abu Awwad, described in vivid terms how demeaning it is for a Palestinian to live in a land under constant surveillance, with soldiers viewing each person as a possible terrorist. He comes from a prominent step of speaking with their Jewish neighbors. Both speakers described their sorrow and frustration with the situation in their land. They speak with each other regularly, trying to understand the other’s fears, frustrations and sorrows.

The experiences that each speaker described were compelling. The question-and-answer period was one in which audience members asked serious question about feelings of insecurity on both sides, the fear of terrorism and the feelings of oppression. Everyone in the audience left with a feeling that we had learned from two eloquent witnesses — a Jew and an Arab — of the good that can be done by trying to reach out and understand each other. There was no shouting. Disagreements were expressed openly. But respect was the tone of the evening.

A few of us who had attended the two events realized that speakers in both presentations described the same conditions. When the words came from a rabbi who lives in Judea-Samaria, they were not booed or denied. When the description of life under Israeli rule was described by the Palestinian, our feelings were touched. But the same tales of being in Judea-Samaria from the soldiers the week before were shouted down. How did this happen?

 I know that a concerted effort was made to bring people to the J Street program to disrupt and challenge the speakers. I received three such emails myself. All described the sponsoring organizations as anti-Israel, destroyers of Israel, etc. Is it a wonder that the meeting ended in pitting Jew against Jew and deepening the divisions among us? 

I preferred the audience reaction to the second meeting. People listened and did not agree with everything that either speaker presented. Hard questions were asked, and the speakers responded with honesty and kindness. This represented St. Louis Jewry to me. We have lots of differences on many subjects, yet we listen, we dialogue, we share our faith and ideals and still feel that we are one people.

I believe that we should treat our Jewish brothers and sisters with the respect that each deserves. Hopefully we can learn from both meetings. Hopefully we can move forward with respect and care for each other, even when we disagree. I feel that this is important for our community and our faith.

Jeffrey Stiffman is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, Chair of the Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series advisory committee, and President of the National Association of Reform Rabbis.