What I didn't notice…

j_street_largeThis a guest post by Rabbi Ezra Weinberg.
Sometimes the first interaction you have at a conference can be emblematic of the experience. In my instance, the first person I spoke to said, “Wow, so many people, so few people of color.” My impulse was to say, “REALLY? Is that what you’re choosing to notice?” While her observation happened to be an annoying yet irrefutable truism, it got me seeing things a little differently. I started seeing what was not here.
Clearly, the organizers wanted to make sure there were many Jewish voices represented, including religious voices. But the religious voices and words used to describe our Jewish mandate for justice were unfortunately predictable. I cringed when I heard one speaker talk about “Isaiah’s fast” and when another said “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” In another example, Ronit Avni of Just Vision used an anecdote about how she “values a Talmudic approach which values complexity and minority opinions.” Jeremy Ben Ami and others were adamant about not reducing the conflict to “us vs them.” Who can argue these points? But when you quote the same overused passages about justice and make blanket statements about using minority opinions or what Judaism does or doesn’t stand for, you better have some substance to back it up. There was lip-service for embracing complexity and opposing viewpoints within sound-bites of Torah that were used, but not a clear enough demonstration of that commitment, at least in the opening plenary.
What I experienced was an unfortunate and all too common over-simplification of the Torah and the purpose of Judaism in a manner similar to those that J Street would criticize their opponents for doing. To me, the voice of our tradition was being used as a rubber stamp to accentuate the political viewpoint of the conference. I happen to resonate with the view point, but feel strongly that the medium was misused. Can there be a more humble and sophisticated way to connect to our ancient heritage? I was craving a religious voice who could draw inspiration from the traditional sources to take a risk and think outside the adversarial box.
Consider for example: What happens when there is tension between settling our promised land and our moral imperative to treat the stranger kindly? It is complex.
Case in point; an opportunity missed.
During Rabbi Bachman’s Dvar Torah of Parshat “Lech Lecha”, he mentioned that the first place Avram travels in Canaan is Schem. This potentially loaded observation about the deep Jewish attachment to the West Bank/Ancient Israel could have lead to a moment for genuine empathy to the settlers. Imagine a liberal rabbi or activist taking time to try to empathize with the devotion and power of his perceived opponent. How moving that could have been? One way our heritage and traditional voice can truly embrace complexity if we let them inspire ourselves to take a risk. But when the goal is to win and beat our opponents the ground is less fertile for transformation. We put ourselves in a greater position to contradict the values we say we represent. We become the embodiment of us vs. them, even when explicitly try not to be.
So what happened? The moment passed. To be fair, it appeared that some people in the room did not seem to realize that Biblical Schem is same city as the modern day Palestinian city of Nablus. That is until moderator and new CEO of NIF Daniel Sokatch pointed out that fact moments after the dvar Torah, leaving the room in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments until he went on to the next speaker. As if to say, “whoops, there ARE biblical reasons for connecting to the land, but we’re not going to go there.” I say, go there. Attachment to the land is real and we do Klal Yisrael a disservice by ignoring that impulse, even when we perceive it as misguided.
There was a strong emphasis on welcoming those of different opinions and the non-Jewish participants in the crowd. I was surprised that a part of myself didn’t feel welcomed. More accurately, I experienced a lack in transparent self-consciousness around the religious political divide. I wonder if anyone else felt a part of themselves unwelcomed.

10 thoughts on “What I didn't notice…

  1. Ezra – I so much appreciated your J Street experience reflections – It feels like they comee from a crucial and classic Hevruta & Zionist perspective. You have a unique, classic, existentially based, visceral, experiential as well as intellectual Jewish and Zionist perspective that helps you arrive at and articulate your own passionate progressive Zionist position while still being humbled, informed and strengthened by your own knowledge of and respect for people, teachings and experiences that others may not view as being part of your political support or ally base, but which you still feel and view as cherished and honorable components of our Klal Yisrael tradition and family. I know you as an “And-nik,” and not an “Either/Or-nik” who’s lived, sees and feels the Jewish & Zionist complexities, fear, pain and hopes from multiple perspectives. I think that the combination of your own real life experiences in, and love for Eretz Yisrael and for the American Diaspora, may cause understandable frustration and even alienation when you see too-convenient use of sources or polemics to simplistically bolster one side vs. the other. My feeling is that, if there was an Israeli Peace Now/Oz V’Shalom-sponsored progressive conference organized inside Israel (which included J Street & many others on its invitation & speakers list), the authenticity and complexity of the presentations and dialogue might better speak to some of your important concerns. B’Kavod, Havarut v’Hiba – David
    (P.S. How wonderfully “coincidental” to have the Rav Soloveitchik quote appear below the “fold.”)

  2. I didn’t feel unwelcomed, but I was conscious of the conference’s political bent and the ways in which my own religious leanings — while they’re more political than they used to be! — are generally not a political phenomenon for me. The last big conference I attended was the Jewish Renewal Kallah, back in July, and the difference between a gathering with an explicitly religious / renewal / renew-ing focus and an explicitly political / advocacy / lobbying focus was palpable for me.
    The place where this was most noticeable for me was in this morning’s session on what it means to be pro-Israel. I heard a lot of conversation there about whether JStreet can, or should, try to include Zionists, post-Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists (whatever all of those terms mean!) all under the same umbrella. It made me uncomfortable; unlike one of this morning’s panelists, I don’t want to see the org draw such strict boundaries around who’s in and who’s out. But I think that reflect my religious commitment to big-tent pluralism — and who knows, maybe it’s appropriate for a shul to have fuzzy boundaries but not for a political / lobbying group? Food for thought, anyway.

  3. J Street will continue to attack the left and distance itself from them, just as BTVS did after its founding. Those of us following, say, the sensible politics of Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom, or who see the refuseniks as more authentically patriotic than the Shin-Bet statement Ami Ayalon, well – we will be treated like union radicals during the McCarthy era.
    Which might be just fine, if it works to pry open much needed daylight between the US and Israel.
    That said, just like I go pray but don’t agree with all the prayers, I’ll be a strong supporter of J Street when the invite sex offender Haim Ramon as one of the main speakers, etc.

  4. Kudos to Ezzie for this touching post.
    One thing that has changed over the years, although not as much as it should, is the freedom of our Jewish leaders to attend a J Street conference with pride.
    Those old enough to remember Breira, and The New Jewish Agenda, will recall that members were accused of being self hating Jews. They feared that being out as members could effect employment prospects.
    I am on the Israeli advisory committee to J Street. Some of those closet to me have called for me to resign from this “treasonous” organization.
    I am off-topic with regard to Reb Ezzie;s remarks. But I am glad that today’s Jewish leaders can meet, and express a J Street sympathy, not in the closet, but out in the open with a feeling of pride and dedication.

  5. An alternate view is that Avni should not have mentioned the “Talmudic approach” at all. After all, this was a political conference, not a Reconstructionist convention.
    As for Schem, perhaps the awkward silence during the opening plenary session was due to some wondering where Rabbi Bachmann’s religious references (not at all a Dvar Torah) were headed.
    I’ll reiterate: this was a political conference after all.

  6. Reb Ezra,
    Your words came at a great time, as I am preparing for a teaching on Hebron for Parashat Chayyei Sarah. Your words have helped me connect to the authentic love part of “lovingly criticize.” Although I believe in the power of nuance and multiplicity, I was having a hard time getting there. Thanks, Bro!

  7. It’s unsurprising. The older generation of Zionist-identifying conference goers (many of the founders and certainly many of the partner orgs like the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and Ameinu) are classically Zionist: secular.
    I think you would have found a home in the two Brit Tzedek events I think you missed. There was a reception celebrating Brit Tzedek’s merger into J Street’s 501c3, where the decidedly crunchy, spiritual flavor of the group came out in full force. Rabbi John Freedman gave a drash on the parsha that nearly left us in tears. And then the reception concluded with dancing the hora. Shame you also missed the reception for rabbinic cabinet and organizers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.