Can we still talk civilly about Israel?

The Sh’ma prayer, the eternal watchword of the Jewish faith, commands us to hear, to listen.  But recent public discussions about how American Jews should relate to the State of Israel have ignored that plea, devolving from legitimate passion into raucous disrespect.

A case in point:  Last week’s program at Congregation B’nai Amoona, titled “Breaking the Silence,” which was sponsored by J Street and featured presentations by former Israeli soldiers who have objected to policies and commands in the West Bank.

Throughout the night, audience members shouted at the presenters, several times calling them liars. Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose did an admirable job in fielding questions and comments, but some of the 200 members of the audience were taken aback by the volume and disrespect displayed by the commenters.  Rabbi Rose said at the event, “I hope this evening that though we may disagree—and we may disagree with real passion—that we understand that we love one another and that we are here tonight to discuss and to debate and to learn respectfully from one another and to understand that all of us who are here love Tzion, love Israel.”

As reported by Jewish Light Associate Editor Eric Berger in his article about the event (see page 1), the hopes of Rabbi Rose for civility and mutual respect “proved to be…an unfulfilled aspiration” for some in the room.

During the question period that followed the panel’s opening remarks, some members of the audience interrupted their remarks with vocal and increasingly loud expressions of strong disapproval, which some at the event believed crossed the line into disrespect. Passion flared on both sides, but some in the audience expressed frustration that they could not fully learn what the speakers were saying, and that is unfortunate.

Nothing is wrong with passionate and spirited debate.  It should be encouraged. Members of the local chapter of J Street believe that the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza are excessively harsh and deserve strong criticism.

But others who attended the event are Israelis or parents of IDF soldiers and feel the criticism is one-sided and amounts to bias. The timing of the event, which had been scheduled for a while, unfortunately coincided with a major flare-up of hostilities between Israel and Islamic Jihad after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad commander in a targeted missile strike.

Many fine, Israel-centered programs are sponsored locally by the Jewish Federation, JCRC, AJC and other groups. They provide valuable opportunities for learning, discussion and, yes, dissent. But participants should not allow their passionate feelings about Israeli policies to cross the line into disrespect or the kind of baseless hatred that history shows can lead to nothing positive.

Let us re-commit to upholding strenuous and diverse debate and agree to disagree without being disagreeable. Since its rebirth as a modern nation state in 1948, Israel has been a powerful unifier among American Jews. Not everyone will agree with every one of its policies. But everyone does need to take care that legitimate concerns about policies do not drive an irreparable wedge between Israel and the American Jewish community.