My heart sank as I read the headline of an article from the Forward on my Facebook feed this week: “Even Proud Zionists Think This Hillel Is Way Too Focused On Israel.”
Before I even clicked on the link to see the details, I knew what the story would, essentially, be about—young Jews, whose disagreements about Israel were polarizing a Jewish community.
Though many people believe that American’s Judaism most daunting challenge is demographics, I believe that the nightmare scenario for our people in the coming generations will center around division, not addition or subtraction.
I fear a Jewish landscape where there are synagogues that are either red or blue, AIPAC or J-Street, or, as seems to be the case on Northeastern University Campus, Hillels where Israel is a welcome topic of conversation, or Jewish affinity groups where Zionism is too controversial a topic to be broached.
To be fair to the students at Northeastern, a Boston University with a population of more than 1,500 Jews, their complaint didn’t necessarily stem from a particular stance or lack of political or historical nuance reflected in the Israel programming at their Hillel, but rather, from an imbalance in its offerings. The fact that the entire student board was summarily dismissed for signing a letter “complaining that the Hillel staff was too focused on Israel and not enough on things like celebrating Jewish holidays or studying Jewish texts,” is a disturbing claim. But the solution of one student, creating an entirely new organization, the Jewish Student Union, as a “safe haven” for students who don’t want Israel on the menu is, perhaps, even more frightening.
Effectively, by taking their chips off the table and going elsewhere, these students aren’t just isolating themselves from Hillel’s unabashedly pro-Israel voice, they are isolating themselves from any opportunity to engage with Israel. To be sure, much of the current generation of Jewish college students struggles to understand Israel’s policies and, tragically, Zionism itself, to a greater extent than their parents or grandparents do. And certainly, the answer isn’t to demonize these young Jews or to call them naïve or deny them a seat at the table. Because if we alienate them, we run the risk of estranging them from both Israel and the Jewish community as a whole.
But too often, Jews fall into the trap of thinking that we should deal with our discomforting disagreements about Israel in the same way we deal with our unease about the American political divide. Either we segment ourselves into an echo chamber that reinforces our own opinion, or we shut down the conversation all together.
As American families, we can do that. We can pretend that when we’re gathered together around the dinner table that our political differences don’t exist.
But as Jewish families, as Jewish communities, we can’t.
We can’t cut ourselves off from other Jews, or give up on engaging with other Jews simply because we don’t agree, especially when it comes to Israel. Why? Because America’s story will go on whether we talk to each other about it or not. And Israel’s story needs each and every one of us in the conversation in order to survive.
Judaism has always been a conversation between two (or more!) sides. That’s what the Mishnah is, that’s what the Talmud is, and critical scholarship of the Bible has revealed that this is even what the Torah is.
When the conversation dies, so do we.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share