Jewish Journal


April 20, 2011

Civility 101


When you get a moment, go online and read the account by our reporter Jonah Lowenfeld of the April 11 J Street debate at Temple Israel of Hollywood. 

Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa squared off against Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of the self-annointed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street. About 600 people filed in.

What you won’t read in Jonah’s account is the obligatory couple of paragraphs describing hecklers and hooligans. The Israeli-Palestinian debate has become our equivalent of English soccer. We paint our faces, set our teeth on edge, prepare to take offense. 

But at Temple Israel, the fight so many have been spoiling for never came. And yet, no one felt let down. Just the opposite; we left feeling raised up — finally the sides in this debate could come together without falling apart. The event, conceived and organized by Temple Israel (and co-sponsored by Valley Beth Shalom, Temple Isaiah,  IKAR and The Jewish Journal), was a model of community leadership. How’d Temple Israel do it?

The odds were against them. In many mainstream American Jewish circles, J Street is treif.

Last year, at AIPAC’s national conference, Alan Dershowitz verbally assaulted a J Street representative in public, accusing the organization of creating a schism among American Jewry over Israel. He told the representative, Hadar Susskind, that J Street “is not pro-Israel.”

In Israel, the organization is as popular as waiting patiently in line. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, refused to speak at J Street’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., and, in late March, a Knesset committee held a raucous session to investigate J Street, with Likud MK Danny Danon calling the group “pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel.”

Three years ago, I wrote here how shortsighted it was for the Jewish establishment to give J Street the cold shoulder. At a time when Israel walks the earth with a begging bowl for friends, here was a group of pro-Israel advocates who were managing to speak to the next generation of American Jews. Some 500 college students from more than 100 universities attended the national 2011 J Street conference in February. But, evidently, the establishment wasn’t listening to me — J Street’s isolation and the rhetoric against it has only sharpened (not helped, I’ll add, by some political missteps on J Street’s part).

So, I walked into the social hall at Temple Israel fully expecting more of what I’ve become so used to: hissing, booing, long-winded “questions” from the audience that are eventually interrupted or cut off when someone yells, “Ask a question, already!” followed by “Shut up!” followed by some rabbi demanding civility … you get the idea: Jews behaving badly.

And, of course, it’s not just Jews. When pro-Israel speakers take the podium at some college campuses, they are shouted down by their political opponents. It happened to Ambassador Oren at UC Irvine. It happened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Orleans.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has forged Manichean worldviews in people, some of whom — in my personal opinion — may be somewhat unstable to begin with. If a group, or a speaker, or a word, falls out of the black and white and into the gray zone, their whole world is rocked, and out come the shouts and perorations.

What happened on April 11 was different. Suissa, who is often a lightning rod for the left, and Ben-Ami, the pro-Israel right’s favorite punching bag, had a pointed, complete and thorough discussion, establishing points of agreement and highlighting areas where they disagree.

For instance, while they both thought President Barack Obama’s emphasis on a settlement freeze as a condition to peace talks was a political blunder, Ben-Ami still feels the settlements are a primary obstacle to negotiations and that Israel should voluntarily, as a gesture of good will, undertake a freeze. Suissa believes settlements pale in significance beside Palestinian incitement and Hamas rejectionism and violence.  

To quote Tevye, “He’s right, and he’s right.” But the truth might be somewhere in between. Still, the larger point that hovered in the air that night was that people who love Israel can rationally debate these issues, without the bloodied lips and busted knuckles.

For this, I give great credit to Temple Israel and Senior Rabbi John Rosove. By embracing debate and disagreement as a Jewish value, the rabbi smartly put everyone on a level playing field.

“Not to argue with each other about important ideas is simply un-Jewish,” he said at the start of the evening. 

I also credit my friend David Suissa. David is a staunchly pro-Israel activist who, above all, knows how to communicate. His goal was to reach those in the audience who might otherwise disagree with him, and to not further alienate them. To do so, he happily stepped on the toes of his natural constituency, first just by appearing on a dais with J Street, then by dispensing with, in his first few sentences, all the slogans and shibboleths J Street’s opponents love to e-mail one another. Suissa decided to talk to the person sitting across from him, not the image or reputation.

Finally, I credit Rabbi Rosove’s decision not to take questions from the audience. Instead, he invited Rabbis Ed Feinstein, Zoë Klein, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Sharon Brous each to pose one good question, which they did. The audience’s job was to listen and watch how civility works. Experience has shown that we just can’t, as yet, be trusted with an open mike. 

But after April 11, I believe there’s hope.

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