Chevre,

Last month, a good friend approached me to help with outreach for an upcoming event. Normally, I would have jumped at the invitation. I love community happenings, and it was an opportunity to work with people I enjoy and respect immensely on an event and project about which I care deeply. But I hesitated. I almost said no. I hesitated for the same reasons I’ve delayed and paused and ultimately said no before. Because as a Jewish professional – as someone who has a great deal invested personally and professionally in the Boston Jewish community – it felt like there was too much at risk. And there is a lot at risk, because the work they are doing and the event they are organizing doesn’t just bump up against controversy; it unequivocally grabs hold of the third rail of progressive Jewish community in the US: Israel/Palestine.

For many of us in progressive, social-justice oriented corners of the Jewish community, the reality is that we simply don’t talk about Israel/Palestine. Not publicly, at least. We don’t talk about it because of the fear that the repercussions for saying the wrong thing in the wrong space can be long lasting and deeply destructive to the relationships and communities we’ve spent so long building.

The majority of my adult life has been spent searching for something like the kind of Jewish community we have in Boston, and throughout those years, time and again I have experienced silencing and alienation because of my politics around Israel.

I have been involved in Jewish community since I chose to join a synagogue when I was 8. I grew up in youth movements and at summer camps, and continuously sought out leadership; the opportunity to build the kind of relevant, meaningful Jewish community I was craving.

But then I went to college, and the nurturing, challenging, enriching, vibrant Jewish communities I’d known seemed to crumble around me. Everywhere I turned, Israel/Palestine was front and center, and I kept picking the wrong side of the fight.

On two different college campuses, I found myself on the wrong side. First, because I was too far to the left: unwilling to vilify and excoriate friends and peers who raised questions and critique of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. So I walked away from that Jewish community, because I refused to walk away from a Jewish commitment to justice and robust wrestling.

I went to Israel and struggled the only way I knew: by diving in and submerging fully. I emerged from Israel short of breath and profoundly challenged by what I’d known and seen, deeply moved, and far more confused about my political stance on “the situation” than when I’d arrived.

Reeling from a year of challenge and catching my breath, on a different campus 2,000 miles away, I again found myself on the outside. Ironically, as my politics shifted further left, I wasn’t “left enough”: refusing to condemn or dismiss Jews who, like myself, had complicated intellectual and emotional relationships with Israel/Palestine. I learned quickly it was safer to be silent, easier to hide.

I was unwilling to abandon Judaism, but found myself completely unmoored from Jewish community. And those are just two communities, two moments, two stories. The reality is that I have repeatedly felt on the outside of communities I expected to feel like home, and as though I could not bring my full self and my experiences to my Jewish communities.  And to be honest? It’s awful. It is piercingly painful and disorienting to lose something as solid and anchoring as religious community, and when I moved to Boston, it was with a quiet, fierce, cautious hope that I might find something different.

In many ways – I have. Boston’s Jewish community is a testament to big tent Judaism. I work and am in community with Jews from across denominational streams and political persuasions. I have slowly started to let my guard down, allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised when I push for a more expansive Jewish world, and nobody pushes back. Or at least they don’t push too hard.

And yet, I still rarely talk about Israel, because the risks feel too great. In Jewish communities across the country, progressive Jews are being silenced or pushed outside of their Jewish institutions; told that their unwillingness to do what amounts to abandoning their values is an affront and attack on fellow Jews, tantamount to anti-Semitism. So when my friends asked me to invite people I knew to a conversation about Israel/Palestine, including a speaker from Jewish Voice for Peace – I hesitated.

But ultimately, obviously, I said yes. I said yes because more than I am afraid, I believe that we have the capacity to build a community with the strength to hold complexity, disagreement, and tension, even when it hits close to our hearts. Our stories are layered, penetrating, and deeply rooted – so it is hard work to be vulnerable to disagreement or change. And yet I have witnessed our collective capacity to stretch and grow, to find the humanity in the people we disagree with, and to exercise our values and ethics even when confronted with profound difference. I believe in us – in our capacity to subvert a damaging pattern emerging across the country – and show up for each other and our right to be in community together, even – perhaps especially – when we disagree.

But that is only going to happen if enough of us turn out and demand space for that dialogue, demand that even people we disagree with be heard, and demonstrate that we want and need to have these conversations as Jews, under the umbrella of the Jewish community. 

So this is really an invitation. I’m inviting you to join me next week for what is – I believe – a desperately necessary conversation. On Monday, October 24th at 7pm at Temple Beth Zion, Workmen’s Circle will host Hot Topics in the Jewish Community,” a panel of speakers including one of the newer, leading voices of the Jewish left and some of Boston’s most respected, veteran intellectuals.

This invitation isn’t just for people who hold any particular political positions on Israel/Palestine. In fact, I really need you to be here if you think our politics are different. This invitation is for you, because I know that Boston Jews across the political spectrum care about a Jewish community that opens its doors and heart to difference, disagreement, and robust, loving debate. I’m inviting you to come to the panel even if you think you will disagree with what you hear, even if the word Palestine makes you uncomfortable, even if you think Israel/Palestine doesn’t matter, even if you think the Jewish community doesn’t have space for you, and even if you think you know everything that will be said. I’m inviting you to step into this dialogue about how our community relates to Israel/Palestine. I’m inviting you to show your support for the Workmen’s Circle’s choice to host this conversation, and for a Boston Jewish community with the fortitude and courage to have the tough conversations, unwilling to abandon each other in the process. 

With hope and faith,
Jo

 Workman's Circle logo

Boston Workmen’s Circle presents

 Hot Topics In the Jewish Community

Monday, October 24, 7pm
1566 Beacon Street (Temple Beth Zion)

Join us for a respectful forum on several of today’s most complicated and “hot topics” related to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  We aim to create a space for probing and open discussion about issues that often divide the Jewish community.  Our panel includes a prominent voice on the Jewish left and two of Boston’s esteemed Jewish community leaders:

  • Leibel Fein:  Columnist – the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper; founder and former editor of Moment Magazine.
  • Larry Lowenthal:  Professor – Northeastern University; former executive director of Boston chapter of the American Jewish Committee 1991-2008
  • Rebecca Vilkomerson:  Executive Director – Jewish Voice for Peace

Moderated by David Matz:   Professor, U Mass;  principal – The Mediation Group

Free and open to the public. All are welcome.