On one level, this is simply obvious. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; “peace camp” or “national camp”; and many other 20th century divisions have long been with us. And vitriol-tossing is not exactly a new sport at Jewish gatherings, public or private. But I think the current wave of division may represent a new phase where reading each other out of the Jewish people is becoming normative.
My current rumination on this subject was brought on at least partly by a local Washington, D.C. incident, which is already having major national repercussions, precisely because it is so emblematic of what is happening throughout this country and, in some different ways, in Israel. Last week,
Ari Roth, the Artistic Director of Theater J, which is part of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, was abruptly fired by Carol Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s Executive Director. Ari had been at his post for 18 years, but tensions had been building recently, largely because of Ari’s insistence on pushing the envelope on Israel in plays like The Admission, and Return to Haifa. A rightwing group called COPMA has been protesting for years that virtually any criticism of Israel (from the left at least), should not be allowed in Jewish community institutions.
While the incident is significant in itself, I think this has to be seen as part of a larger picture that is chiefly, but by no means entirely, about Israel and its current path. While I and others have been publicly identified with organizations of the ‘peace camp’ for over a quarter century, in the last few years, due partly to the combined, if very different, efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu and J Street, as well as many others, the issue of “Whither Israel” has split us down the middle. I — and most people reading this blog — are convinced that Israel’s current path is leading to a future that is belligerent, anti-democratic, and potentially fatal to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It is only fair that we recognize that at least as many others are just as firmly convinced that Israel’s path is based on self-defense and “ein breira” (no choice). Both sides see this as truly existential.
While the ‘peace camp’ has often been treated a step-child of the American Jewish community for decades, something has changed recently. Its numbers, stature, and political clout have increased significantly, though its effect on the conflict itself has been less dramatic. Perhaps it is also the belief on the left that time is really running out on a two-state solution. Then there is the growing emphasis on hard-edge Jewish religious nationalism on the right in Israel causing more pushback by American Jews who feel their own values are being trampled on. All of these have been coming to a head in different contexts.
I do not claim to be “objective” on this and I doubt anyone can be nowadays. But the direction we are going in now seems to be leading towards an irreparable split. If my views cannot be presented at the DCJCC, why should I go there? I imagine that those on the right feel similarly about other institutions, though they are far more represented in the Jewish establishment that controls most communal institutions. These institutions used to try to keep political divisions outside their doors, largely by hiding behind a facade of unity that usually meant either presenting just the AIPAC line, or else ignoring the divisions and settling for an insufferable blandness. The belief in some institutions was (and still is) that strong feelings should not be allowed in, because they might lead to disagreement, God forbid. That is a caricature of a WASP family, not of a self-confident Jewish community.
I think those who lead Jewish institutions have to carefully consider if their intolerance of what some consider “anti-Israel” will either denude their institutions of serious content, or make them into places where only those with approved opinions are interested in going. Inevitably, new institutions will be formed for those who don’t fit in the old institutions. Perhaps that is what the leaders of the current institutions want; that all of us, following the old joke, have a list of institutions we patronize and a similar list we won’t set foot in. But I can’t believe that this would be a plus for the future of Judaism or Israel or the Jewish people.
I am working with others to try to set up some sort of dialogue between the sides on this. I have more than twenty years of experience of organizing and participating in dialogues with Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims. In some ways, institutionalizing intra-community dialogue between Jews may be even more of a challenge.
As I was finishing this article, my attention was called to a piece in Tablet by the noted Israeli writer and film-maker Etgar Keret, who makes a similar point about Israelis feeling dispossessed in their own country. He thinks the coming election may help to ameliorate the situation. I hope he’s right but I’m less optimistic.
Best wishes for the New Year.