Justice, Politics

Community Without Consensus?

This is a guest post by Naomi Adland.
I started working at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in January as a graduate intern, tasked with helping the Jewish social justice world have meaningful conversations about Israel – a project that, at the time, sounded deceptively simple to me. I leapt at the chance to work with an organization I have long admired, with people who are smart, dedicated, and passionate about Judaism and the Jewish community, because I share the vision that Hartman outlined:

We believe that a state that is going to live up to its aspiration to be Jewish and democratic needs a base of American Jewish supporters committed to both of those values and eager to help Israel get there, and that the loss of the social justice community from the ranks of Zionist leaders will have profound ripple effects on the health of Israeli society.

The project seemed like the perfect fit for me, because the Venn diagram between organizations I have worked with or volunteered for and organizations that make up the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is almost a perfect circle. I fight domestic poverty as a member of the AVODAH alumni community, and global injustices as a part of the AJWS community. I have worked to reform the Farm Bill and raise awareness about alternative transportation with Hazon, and as a teenager, the Religious Action Center helped me lobby Congress for the first time, setting me on a path that recently resulted in my graduation from the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU.
It’s possible that because of my connections with these organizations, I underestimated the challenge ahead of me. My first four months on the job were…quiet. I sent a lot of emails, I made a lot of phone calls, and I knocked on a lot of metaphorical doors. It didn’t go particularly well. No one said no to my requests for meetings outright, but the meetings themselves were often the ends of the conversation. Ultimately, whether stated explicitly or implicitly, the eventual answer was almost always “we’re not ready to change the way we approach Israel.” Increasingly, my job felt like trying to change the course of a river by throwing pebbles in its path.
Sometimes, though rivers do change courses. The recent vote of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations not to grant admission to J Street set off a new round of conversations about representation and democracy in the American Jewish community. To me, the vote felt like nothing so much as a case study outlining how not to respond to dissenting views within a community, and what to do when members of a community begin asking difficult questions. In the Jewish social justice world, we make a regular practice of asking difficult questions and voicing dissenting opinions, and we have developed a variety of strategies for managing the challenge this can present. Yet we too are reluctant to engage with the difficult questions that arise in conversations about Israel. What might the Conference of Presidents vote have looked like with a little more exposure to the consensus building techniques being taught in AVODAH houses across the country?
When, in the aftermath of the vote, I got an email from my boss saying, “This is a unique opportunity for conversation and learning. Let’s not miss it,” I couldn’t wait to get started – because he was absolutely right. We at Hartman are not in the business of providing direct services to people in need, or organizing the Jewish community to get involved in political actions – but we are uniquely prepared to convene serious conversations about the major challenges facing the Jewish community. And I believe that it is time for a serious conversation about what Jewish communal consensus might look like in the face of increasing dissent. Maybe it’s not about bringing Israel conversations into Jewish social justice organizations – maybe it’s about bringing Jewish social justice organizations into Israel conversations, so that their wisdom about managing diverse opinions and difficult questions can inform us all.
We at Hartman have put together a day of learning I am excited for and proud of. Intended to serve as an eclectic beit midrash (house of study), Judaism, Democracy, and the Ethics of Inclusion will address questions of consensus, democracy, diversity, and leadership ranging from “Who speaks on behalf of the Jewish community?” to “Is American Jewish political consensus desirable? If not, what constitutes a community without consensus?” through a broad range of text-based presentations and small group discussions. We made a couple of important strategic decisions in putting together this day. None of the presenters come from the organizations at the heart of the debates, because we wanted this to be a day about big ideas more than specific controversies. Other than a brief framing discussion at the start of the day and a similarly brief wrap-up at the end, we’re ditching plenaries in favor of small group sessions where everyone can participate and be heard. And we’ve limited the invitation list to those who work in the Jewish community (at all levels) and board chairs (many of whom put in as many hours as the professionals do) to hopefully inspire those in positions to affect change.
Whether you identify as a part of the Jewish social justice community or not, whether you have strongly held beliefs about Israeli politics or not, I hope you can join me in New York on June 12. I think we will all be the better for it.
Learn more about Judaism, Democracy, and the Ethics of Inclusion.

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