How can my congregation talk about Israel in ways that are productive?

created at: 2013-12-16Many liberal congregations have difficulty talking about Israel, and especially politics around Israel/Palestine. Talking about Israel is loaded with emotion, especially within Jewish communities. Synagogues and many families have a hard time talking about these issues, which are based on deeply held values and can be painful to disagree on.

Two surveys this year illustrate how central this issue is to American Jews. The recent Pew Research Center portrait of Jewish Americans showed that 43 percent of American Jews think that caring about Israel is essential to Jewish identity; this means that 57 percent don’t. Without even getting to the substance of the issue, just the question of the centrality of Israel divides Jews. Many Jews feel that they need to support Israel as a matter of Jewish survival, while other Jews feel they have a responsibility to improve Israel and be more critical. These two basic identities and positions often clash. A survey from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said that one-third of rabbis feel they can’t freely express their own views about Israel. My experience is that at least one-third of people in Jewish communities feel this way, not just rabbis.

Due to the difficulty of talking about Israel’s politics, a few great resources have evolved. I’ve been an active facilitator for the Jewish Dialogue Group, an organization that works to foster constructive dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other challenging issues within Jewish communities. Another good resource is israel360, funded by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, whose mission is to talk about Israel from all sides, with none of the food fights. They hold dialogues in Boston. (The next israel360 “convo salon” is this Wednesday, Dec. 18.)

At my congregation in Newton, Shir Hadash Havurah, we are having a yearlong exploration of diverse points of view related to Israel and Palestine, and we invite anyone to come learn with us.

Some things to keep in mind when talking about Israel:

  1. Recognize that different perspectives come out of different experiences and sources of information. When it comes to personal experience and emotion, there is no “right” or “wrong.” Recognize the importance and value of a multiplicity of perspectives.
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of not talking about Israel because it’s too upsetting. Instead, recognize that Jewish communities are the place to have important conversations, and important conversations are often challenging.
  3. Set community, or personal, guidelines for acceptable communication. For example, many communities and individuals have policies of not entering into hard conversations via email. Also, speaking for oneself and with respect are good ground rules for productive conversation.
  4. Hold activities that promote listening to and understanding the experiences of others, as opposed to simply bringing in outside experts. It is just as important to have dialogue within the Jewish community as dialogue with those outside the community, if not more so. If external experts are brought in, have a discussion afterward in which diverse views from the congregation are heard.

created at: 2013-12-16Wishing us, Israel and the world peace and understanding.

Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld is the rabbi of Shir Hadash Havurah, a Reconstructionist havurah in Newton. She is also the education director at Kahal Braira, a humanist community in Cambridge.

Check out resources and learn more from the Jewish Dialogue Group and israel360.