What I learned from a right-wing, Jewish Republican about the Israel conversation
I experienced two very different ways of having the Israel conversation on Liel Tikkun Shavuot last week.
I first performed my play The Forbidden Conversation a year ago at the 14th Street Y and have been performing it in different Jewish spaces since. The play deals with the difficulty of talking openly about Israel in the Jewish American community. I was invited to perform the play and have a conversation at the JCC Manhattan’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night full of Jewish voices from across the spectrum of Jewish life.
[pullquote align=right] One elderly woman asked the question that I fear most. It wasn’t from the right or the left…
[/pullquote]After performing the play I encouraged the audience, in the spirit of tikkun, to reflect and share their personal difficulties with the Israel conversation. Audience members expressed difficulty with siblings, fellow students, and even themselves. One elderly woman asked the question that I fear most. It wasn’t from the right or left; it is a reflection on the culture of the conversation about Israel. She asked, “Why don’t we just stop talking about Israel at all, it only brings so much sorrow, anger and friction to our community”.
The one exception was an Israeli man who asserted that there is no difficulty talking about Israel. But then he proceeded to argue that since “there is no occupation” there is no difficulty. I asked him if he thinks that opposing the occupation out of concern for Israelis and Palestinians and a deep commitment to Jewish values is a legitimate opinion to have for a member of his own community. He was reluctant to answer. It is still unimaginable to me that an issue so important to the identity of American Jewry is the one that can’t be openly explored in so many places.
[pullquote align=left] I make say after every performance of my play that this conversation is going to get harder.
[/pullquote]I make a point to say after every performance of my play that this conversation is going to get harder. Conversations about the occupation — settlements, the state of the Israeli democracy, BDS, what’s best for Israeli and Palestinian security — are getting more difficult and often avoided completely.
And it would be true in my next session, moderating a conversation about Palestinian human rights in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a conversation with Hagai El-Ad the executive director of B’Tselem, one of Israel’s leading human rights groups. The room was full beyond capacity with many standing in the back. It was a great opportunity to talk about B’Tselem big change in strategy. After 25 years B’Tselem is ending its collaboration with the Israeli military. The military has often relied on B’Tselem and other human rights NGOs to collect and help investigate complaints of Palestinians against soldiers. The group, citing lack of faith in the system, stated: “Cooperation with the military law enforcement and investigatory systems do not bring justice, but grant legitimacy to the occupation regime and assist in its validation.” A tough topic.
During the Q & A part an Israeli women who I picked to ask the first question started forcefully expressing her personal trauma with terrorism (many Israelis including myself know someone or themselves experienced similar trauma). She was using her pain as proof that the occupation does not exists, explaining that only Palestinian terror is real. I tried after some time to encourage her to ask a question, but she refused and kept talking. Another woman at the end of the room stood up and started shouting too. Everybody in the room got frustrated. They didn’t get to ask their questions and Hagai couldn’t answer. A security guard had to come in and tell the shouting woman that she would be removed if she continued. By the time she stopped shouting, there was very little time left for questions.
[pullquote align=right] Here we go again, I though, another person on the right asking me do deny there is an occupation. But to my surprise he didn’t ask me to do that.
[/pullquote]After the session I was confronted with right-wing members who insisted I admit that the occupation doesn’t exist. They weren’t interested in a conversation, they were interested in making me reject what I know to be true. They were aggressively rejecting that my opinions are legitimate, even though they are prevalent in our community. It was a flashback to the discourse during the Iran deal debate and the Gaza war. When the communal conversation devolved into name calling, aggression and vitriol in many cases.
I found myself frustrated that the loud and belligerent voices dominated this conversation, not allowing community members to engage in a meaningful learning experience.
Hagai and I went downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs we were approached by Phillip J. Rosenthal the Jewish Republican candidate for the 10th Congressional District. He was at the B’Tselem session but didn’t get a chance to ask a question. Here we go again, I though, another person on the right asking me do deny there is an occupation. But to my surprise he didn’t ask me to do that. He acknowledged the fact we disagree. In the simple act of acknowledgment, in the recognition that we are coming to this from the right and the left he elevated the discussion. There is very little we probably agree on, but I was willing to listen. He made the point that the conversation about human rights violation of Palestinians should include Hamas violations. Of course he is right. On top of the Israeli occupation Palestinians also suffer from Hamas violations of human rights, as I read later in B’Tselem’s site’s home page. A topic I should know and read more about.
It was a learning exchange.
I experienced two very different ways of having the Israel conversation that night. The aggressive/ belligerent way and a respectful, thoughtful way. The big difference was not about political opinion, that was the same in both cases, the big difference was the simple recognition that we disagree. That we come to this from different places in the Jewish political spectrum. That we don’t expect the other side to renounce their beliefs because we raise our voice or evoke trauma.
We disagree, and that should be acknowledged, respected, and celebrated, as it is the cornerstone of our tradition.