What does it take to have a civil talk about Israel?

Ruti Kadish of New Israel Fund
Ruti Kadish of New Israel Fund Photos by David Holzel

The rules weren’t as simple as they sounded – not when the topic was Israel:

No interrupting.

Honor time commitments for speaking.

Talk about how you see the issue, rather than attack someone else.


Everyone at the community meeting, “Welcoming and Listening to Diverse Positions about Israel,” had to agree to the rules – the 100 people in the audience at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase on April 21, and the three panelists: Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street; Ruti Kadish, director of foundation relations of the liberal New Israel Fund, which supports religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel; and Ilan Sztulman, head of public diplomacy for the Embassy of Israel in Washington.

The goal, said Rabbi David Shneyer, of Am Kolel Jewish community, who organized the event, was to see if Jews could “engage in principled disagreements [about Israeli policy] in a way that doesn’t rip our community apart.”

Israeli Embassy spokesman Ilan Sztulman
Israeli Embassy spokesman Ilan Sztulman

Shneyer said he grew disturbed over the rancor against organizations including New Israel Fund and Theater J in Washington, several of whose plays about Israel drew protests. “In addition, many rabbis are afraid to talk about human rights in Israel from the bimah,” he said.

“It’s been very difficult watching, hearing the way people speak about each other,” he told the gathering.

Elsner pointed out that “in our community we can talk about anything – even the existence of God – but we can’t talk about Israel.”

He said American Jews have the democratic right to speak about Israel and to criticize its policies. “We are equal partners in the Israel-U.S. relationship and the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community,” he said.

He said that when Jews argue over issues “that are fair game in the Israeli political system, then we are engaging in disagreement for the sake of heaven,” a reference to the talmudic distinction between constructive and destructive argument. He contrasted that with rebelling against the state, which he said the BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was guilty of.

Alan Elsner of J Street
Alan Elsner of J Street

Kadish, of the New Israel Fund, said “Israel is a work in progress” and that “our criticism is how we support Israel” and the vision enshrined in its Declaration of Independence for a democratic, Jewish state.

Sztulman, of the embassy, said that Jews who are committed to Israeli democracy should defer to the Israeli government. “This is what the people of Israel decided. You can agree with it or not, but it’s what we decided.”

Referring to Netanyahu’s election warning about “droves” of Arab voters, Sztulman said, “Sometimes in an election, what people say can be taken out of context,” which produced a groan from the audience.

In a veiled critique of J Street, which is publicly critical of the Netanyahu government’s policies, Sztulman said, “When you lobby against the government of Israel, you’re against Zionism.”

“I appreciate what Ilan said,” Elsner responded, “although as far as I’m aware, we [Americans] have a president that we elect to carry out our foreign policy.”

Kadish also “appreciated” Sztulman drawing a line between who is Zionist and who isn’t. “But I don’t understand what he means. If I did understand a little more, maybe we could unpack that.”
In the question session, audience members also sought clarification. “How do we indicate to Israel that we do have a criticism?” one person asked.

“I have no problem with criticism. The Jewish Agency belongs to the Jewish people,” Sztulman said, referring to the quasi-governmental body in which Israel and the Diaspora have equal representation. “My problem is lobbying against the democratically elected government of Israel.”

Audience member Marlene Langert said she was old enough to remember the Holocaust. “Several years ago we gave up Gaza,” she said, referring to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005. “Do you want us to give up Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]?” she said, to which many in the audience, breaking rule number 1, answered, “Yes.”

Steve Silverberg said that he was raised as an Orthodox Jew with a love of Israel. “But for the Israeli embassy to tell me what Zionism is smacks of McCarthyism,” he said.

Afterward, Shneyer said he wished there had been time for in-depth conversations, but was satisfied there had been a civil dialogue about an explosive issue.

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