As central gathering places for the Jewish community for a century and a half, Jewish Community Centers have seen their share of vigorous and even contentious debate about many issues of importance to North American Jews, from education to draft counseling, immigration to religious observance.
Throughout that time, the JCC remained the place that all Jews could express their views without fear and expect to be listened to with respect. It has been the living room of the community, so to speak—the place that complicated and difficult issues could be hashed out, and if not concluded, then at least openly discussed.
Now another issue has become the roiling center of debate—Israel. The debate, however, is not whether Israel should be present in the JCC—no one contests that—but what the parameters of the conversation should be.
Several JCCs have been loudly criticized recently for presenting art pieces that are unflattering to Israel. The JCC of Manhattan’s Other Israel Film Festival, which focuses on non-Jewish minorities in Israel, and the DCJCC’s Theater J’s presentation of “Seven Jewish Children” and “Return to Haifa” have provoked angry responses from some in their communities who accuse the JCCs of implicitly delegitimizing Israel’s right to exist.
These people have raised their voices in what no doubt is sincere dismay at what they perceive to be an immediate threat to the Jewish state. But in their insistence on the singular validity of their viewpoints, they misunderstand the role of a Jewish Community Center. JCCs are the original big-tent institutions, opening their doors and welcoming all Jews—not only Jews who act a certain way or look a certain way or think a certain way. Their inclusivity has made them the perfect place for the entire Jewish community to gather and celebrate, learn, argue and, more than sometimes, disagree.
The JCC of Manhattan and the DCJCC have continued that honorable tradition with great elan, opening their doors to their communities and inviting them in to share views and opinions on a wide diversity of topics, and especially on Israel. They have offered a remarkably rich assortment of Israeli films, performances, exhibits and foods. Theater J also has upheld the venerable Jewish custom of challenging art. It wants to make its audience think as well as laugh or cry.
Moreover, JCCs reflect the communities that support them; the Upper West Side of Manhattan and downtown Washington are going to have different conversations than Borough Park, Brooklyn, or Miami, Fla.
At a time when our community is increasingly diverse and sophisticated, when so many of our young people (and their elders) are growing more emotionally and intellectually disengaged from Israel, these JCCs are playing a vital role in connecting American Jews to Israel, as JCCs do everywhere. In so doing, they reflect the recommendations put forward by our 2010 Israel Task Force, which saw JCCs as the perfect venues to introduce the vibrancy and diversity of Israel life and culture to North Americans through the arts and to promote discussion of critical issues relating to Israel.
As President Obama urged after the horrific shooting in Tucson that shocked the nation, “at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
American and Israeli Jews have had too much bitter experience with the results of reckless speech, and with the consequences of blacklisting. Despite our deeply held differences, we can still respect each other’s motives and intentions, and keep the JCC as a space free of accusations and reprisals.
(Allan Finkelstein is the president of the JCC Association.)