Loving Israel, Debating Israel

By Michael Yoeli | Issue Date: May 2011

On January 30, 2011, BJ hosted a debate titled “Loving Israel, Debating Israel: Between Debate, Democracy and Delegitimization.” In some ways, the title was as descriptive of the process involved in deciding whether to hold the debate as it was of the debate itself.

The 88th Street Sanctuary during “Loving Israel, Debating Israel.” Photo: Max OrensteinWe are all witnesses to the volatility that often accompanies any discussion about the State of Israel in the Jewish community. This phenomenon is not restricted to the infighting among organizations claiming to speak for American Jewry. Even a friendly gathering or dinner  party can turn instantly contentious as soon as someone expresses an opinion as to the current state of affairs in Israel. Often, much of the anger that quickly rises to the surface has to do with the mere fact that Israel is being criticized. To some, public criticism meant to better Israel is a moral obligation, to others, in a world filled with haters of Jews and Israel, criticism merely gives support to our enemies. The problem of how to navigate these turbulent waters is particularly acute in a synagogue like BJ: a large, pluralistic congregation, containing a wide variety of divergent views. On the one hand, we are a community for which the love of Israel is a cornerstone of our mission, and we naturally hesitate to act in a way that can be seen by some as questioning that commitment. On the other hand, we are also a community centered on the prophetic ideals of justice and human rights, and we cannot simply ignore our concerns because they arise in the context of Israel.

Thus, when a panel discussion of such issues as whether the American Jewish community should criticize Israel, and whether there are lines, like boycott, divestment, and sanctions, that should not be crossed, was proposed, it naturally gave rise to concerns about the advisability of hosting such an event. These concerns were magnified by the necessity ofputting together a panel that, if it were to be representative of the full range of opinion in the Jewish community, would express views that might be offensive to some. The panel as finally selected from the range of knowledgeable persons available was certainly familiar with controversy: Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, represented an organization associated with the BDS (The Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign) movement that recently was named on the ADL’s list of top 10 anti-Israel groups; Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, spoke for an organization that has been attacked in Israel by groups claiming that the NGOs it backs were the main source of the damaging information in the Goldstone Report condemning Israel’s actions in the Gaza war; Matthew Ackerman, Middle East analyst for the David Project, advocates for an organization teaching college students to counter anti-Israel sentiment on the college campus, which is seen by some on the left as an apologist for Israeli government policy. The moderator was J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist for the Forward.

Ultimately, despite sometimes vociferous objection from members of the community on both the left and the right that BJ should not give a forum to certain ideas, and concerns that in the current climate the debate could not be kept civil, the decision was made to proceed with the event. As Rabbi Felicia Sol explained:

“We have a vision as Rabbis of BJ that we need to rescue the value of respectful dialogue among disagreeing parties within the community, a value that is quickly being lost within the larger Jewish community. We decided that despite our personal objections to BDS, these kind of debates are taking place everywhere—from college campuses, in the younger generation of disaffiliated Jews, to the media—and it is important that we as Jews be knowledgeable about the positions that exist in the Jewish world as well as the world at large, even when we disagree, even when it is uncomfortable for the sake of being conversant on the various issues and to create dialogue.”

Judging by the turnout of hundreds of people who stayed for the full two-hour event, and the mostly civil manner in which the debate unfolded, many in the community agreed with the Rabbis’ view of the importance of opening such a dialogue.

To try to summarize a wide-ranging debate on a sensitive and polarizing subject in a few sentences without offending someone is probably not the best idea. But with apologies to those who heard it differently or came away with a completely different take, here are some impressions and thoughts.

Rebecca Vilkomerson. Photo: Max OrensteinMs. Vilkomerson spoke about the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. She argued that Jews should not check their values at the door, that criticism of Israeli policy is both a responsibility and a “hopeful act,” and that “Jewish survival was bound up with Palestinian freedom.” She acknowledged that some parts of the general BDS movement are anti-Israel but sought to distinguish her group by arguing that its actions were grounded in Jewish values. When asked by the moderator how she drew the line between actions that protest what Israel does and actions that destroy Israel, Ms. Vilkomerson responded that her group’s focus was only on divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. But that response seemed confusing when coupled with a further statement that although not a party to other strategies of the BDS movement, she did not oppose them. She also made it clear that her group’s platform was not limited to ending the occupation, but also included the right of return for Palestinian refugees to any place of their choosing. When challenged by Mr. Goldberg that the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state, Ms. Vilkomerson spoke of her view of international law and the need to create a state that protected Jews and Palestinians. Though not stated explicitly, she clearly left the impression that in her view the national historical goal of a Jewish state could not be permitted to stand in the way of achieving a democratic political entity.

Matthew Ackerman. Photo: Max OrensteinIn marked contrast, Matthew Ackerman focused squarely on the Jewish nature of the state, and the deep historical connection between the Jewish people and Israel. Such was his focus that I found it sometimes led him to minimize the seriousness of the human rights and democracy issues confronting Israel and, to an extent, to respond to criticism of Israel and methods such as BDS emotionally rather than analytically. Though he argued that we should not avoid discussion of the problems in Israel, he was firm in his belief that a red line should be drawn at any speech or action that questions the “moral legitimacy” of the State of Israel. In his view the BDS movement, as exemplified by Jewish Voice for Peace, did precisely that and should not be countenanced in the Jewish community. When asked to clarify whyan organization that urges divestment from companies making profits from the occupation of the West Bank should be viewed as questioning the legitimacy of Israel, Mr. Ackerman made clear that in his view, irrespective of the motives of any Jewish organization employing BDS, such an organization was nothing more than a tool for a Palestinian movement whose goal was the destruction of the State of Israel.

Daniel Sokatch. Photo: Max OrensteinDaniel Sokatch, whose work involves securing funding through the NIF for nonprofit organizations in Israel who work for a progressive civil society, did not address the issues surrounding the BDS movement directly. He spoke instead of a marked change in the relationship of American Jews to Israel, particularly among young people who simply do not want to enter into the conversation. He believes that this trend is accelerating because as people living in a liberal political culture, we cannot relate to an Israel that seems to be moving constantly to the right and displaying anti-democratic tendencies under the influence of the settler movement, the religious block, and Russian-based political parties.

Mr. Sokatch urged us to adopt a twofold responsibility: to love Israel and to tell the truth. When asked by the moderator how one can love Israel during these complicated times, he answered: “Fall in love with the Israel that keeps the dream.” I thought that this response struck an evocative, but at the same time unsatisfying, chord. There was a time when the dream seemed easier to define, and it was possible to believe we all shared that dream, but as the debate between the panelists illustrated, we seem to have arrived at a time when one person’s dream of and for Israel is another person’s nightmare.

Michael Yoeli is a member of the BJ Board and co-chairperson of the Israel Steering Committee. Michael, his wife Susan, and their three children have been members of BJ for 18 years.