On my first trip to Israel, as a high school student in the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s Summer Ulpan program, we learned about how the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans brought about the end of Jewish national life. While touring Jerusalem, we were taken to the spot that had been a bridge where Jews ascended to the Temple Mount, and all that was visible were its boulders and stones as they had crumbled in the year 70 C.E.
I was mesmerized. As a teen touring the modern Jewish state of Israel, I was witnessing the physical remnants of the destruction of the thriving Jewish national life from 2,000 years ago.
I stared at ancient rubble and saw my future.
On June 6, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Consulate sponsored an emergency community rally in support of Israel. Despite there being less than a week to prepare, the street was filled with thousands, conveying the deep commitment we have in Los Angeles to the well-being of the State of Israel.
Unfortunately, and certainly unintentionally, the rally also demonstrated a serious lack of civility within our community and a seeming lack of acceptance of what is readily known in Israel — namely that its future as a secure, Jewish and democratic state can only be ensured through a two-state solution.
I was honored to represent Americans for Peace Now at the rally. It’s certainly not news to readers of The Jewish Journal that a vocal minority of the crowd, if not a majority, refused to listen or let others listen. They booed, catcalled and jeered. On three occasions, top representatives of The Jewish Federation and the Israeli Consulate implored the crowd for civility, but it was to no avail.
In the end, I finished saying what I had prepared to say — a proclamation of support for the people of Israel in their time of need, and a message of hope that Israel would one day live at peace with its neighbors.
Those in the crowd who disagreed might have simply offered polite applause, stayed silent or put their fingers in their ears. They chose to heckle and did so without considering what was being said.
At first blush, this incident may appear to be about right versus left, hawk versus dove. But there is something much deeper, and very troubling, that the heckling exposed: For a broad segment of American Jews, there can be no debate on Israel. Its policies must be supported whether or not they are sensible, whether or not they are humane, whether or not they are contributing to Israel’s descent into pariah status. They are the self-appointed enforcers of political orthodoxy.
For them, there is no room for divergent opinions on what is best for Israel. For them, when it comes to this issue, they ignore the fundamental Jewish tradition of debate and dissent, which are so elevated as to be a core element of the Talmud.
This is not just about a handful of hecklers. This attitude permeates the meeting rooms, boardrooms, sanctuaries and social halls of our community. At the same time, it does not represent the majority in our community, nor in Israel, where the defense minister can say that the occupation poses a bigger threat to Israel than an Iranian nuclear bomb. In Los Angeles, a representative of Americans for Peace Now simply steps to the podium, and the people who are ostensibly the most ardent supporters of Israel open their mouths to boo while closing their minds to the message.
Something is terribly wrong when the wagons are circled so tight that differences, healthy debate and loyal dissent are not allowed in. If this is the culture that dominates “pro-Israel” activity, those unable to countenance this orthodoxy will feel alienated, which includes a growing number of young Jews.
So, what to do? Let’s start by acknowledging the problem. Then, let’s openly discuss in our synagogues, schools, chavurot, learning circles and organizational meetings how Israel’s current and future well-being is being served by its policies. Let’s abandon the talking points that cleverly skirt Israel’s dilemmas. Let’s stop obsessing about hasbarah and start talking about the real issues. Israelis do it every hour of every day. We should cherish and nurture it just like they do.
The current Israeli government’s reluctance to genuinely pursue a two-state solution could spell the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I would welcome those who disagree to engage with me in discussion and debate. I’m sure I will learn from their insights, as they will from mine.
The forces that physically brought down the Second Temple in Jerusalem were external. However, the rabbis say that the destruction was not due to Roman military superiority but rather to causeless hatred among the Jews.
The destroyed bridge in Jerusalem that captivated me many years ago reminds us what can happen when we are overcome not by external forces, but rather internal divisions, incivility and hatred.
Let us protect and strengthen the bridge we have here in Los Angeles and prevent any possibility of a collapse that would bring the destruction of us all.
David Pine is West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now and has worked for more than 20 years on behalf of the Jewish community and Israel.