A Moment of Pluralism – by Ayala Emmett

A Moment of Pluralism
Ayala Emmett

“Those and those אלו ואלו are the living words of God ”  (TB Eruvin 13a)

From sundown on September 28 to October 1 2013, about 2900 Americans and Israelis gathered at the Washington Convention Center at a conference organized by J Street. Not far away, on Capitol Hill, the American Congress, marked by bitter acrimony, prepared to shut down the government; yet, at the conference Israeli Members of Knesset, Left and Right, religious and secular, women and men offered support for the peace process and for a two states agreement. Leading the way on American grounds for a public commitment to a two-state solution was Justice Minister and Israeli Chief Negotiator Tzipi Livni who gave the opening keynote address, followed, two days later by Member of Knesset Zehava Galon, Chairwoman of the Meretz party.

The numerous conference panels included Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Yitzhak Vaknin of the Shas party, Member of Knesset Meir Shitrit of Hatnuah Party, and women Members of Ruth Kaledron of Yesh Atid, Merav Michael and Stav Shaffir, of Labor. The least likely supporter of two-states, and a surprise to many, was member of Knesset Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud Yisrael Beiteinu. Indeed one of the questions to Hanegbi, a scion of a famous Etzel family, was that twenty years ago he had opposed a two-state solution. Hanegbi replied calmly that he was not the same person he had been twenty years ago, and looking at his Knesset colleagues on the panel and at the audience he added that none were the same people they had been twenty years earlier.

The wide range of panels at the conference included academics, rabbis, writers, journalists, and leading Palestinians like Husam Zomlot, Executive Deputy Commissioner for International Affairs Palestine and Samih El-Abed Member of the Palestinian Negotiating Team. While the Israeli members of Knesset framed their support for a two-state solution differently, from security and pragmatic considerations to Jewish and/or universal moral principles, there was an unexpected respect for pluralism in the panels including the Palestinian positions.

Notable in the discussions was a focus on solutions rather than accusations and the absence of rancor despite, at times vastly different positions on issues like refugees, Jerusalem and final borders. My intention here is not to consider the conference’s contribution to the ongoing peace process, although it is a valuable discussion, nor to explore, at this point, the emergence of J Street ‘s support for a two state solution.

My purpose is to bracket this conference as a moment of pluralism to promote an inclusive Jewish American discourse on Israel. It is precisely because of the commitment of Jewish American communities and synagogues to Israel that I propose this bracketing of the conference as a model of and for pluralism as practice, as on the ground inclusive discussion on Israel. The conference, bracketed, was a moment in which Israelis of very different political parties outlined a two-state agreement and legitimated a public discussion (in Washington D.C.) on the peace process.  It presented, as I will note, different ways of being caring Jews, Zionists and ethical people. It was marked by open discussions on a two state solution in stark contrast to the silencing of views on the peace process in most Jewish American communities.

As Amos Oz, noted a year earlier in the 2012 J Street conference: “I’ve been traveling in the U.S. for 45 years and they always tried to hush me that in Israel you can have your difference, but here we should be united. I say, yes, but why united under militaristic hawkish banner of AIPAC, and not peace-loving J Street? There is more than one way to be a good Jew, a good Zionist, to stand for Israel. No one can claim Zionism to themselves”  [Haaretz, March 25, 2012]. Amos Oz, a preeminent Israeli author, the winner of numerous international and Jewish awards speaks in the first person singular, and at the same time his statement represents all those whose pro Israel support for peace and two states has been silenced over the years in most Jewish American communities.

Oz suggests that Jewish Americans should unite around a peace banner, and yet, Jewish American organizations and synagogues are already united in support of Israel; the issue I raise is the need of different views, left, center, and right in debates on what would make Israel secure and democratic, and will also make a Jewish American discussion open and democratic.

The moment of pluralism forged at the J Street 2013 conference speaks not only for Israelis like Amos Oz, or those who participated in the conference, but for young Jewish Americans like the students in Swarthmore who recently insisted on greater inclusion at the Hillel chapter. The chapter opted for pluralism on their campus and declared it an “Open Hillel”  [New York Times, Dec. 30, 2013].

In their statement the members said, “We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views” [Open Hillel]

Swarthmore students are not alone. The 2003 J Street conference included 900 college students from around the country. The presence of hundreds of students energized the conference. Pluralism was evident in their strong and vocal support for Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people and for two states living side by side as the road for Israel’s secure and peaceful future.

Pluralism was displayed in a Minchah minyan that I attended that challenged conventional notions that pro-peace Jews are secular leftists rather than devout Jews with different positions. The designated room for Minchah overflowed with daveners, the majority of them students and when I asked about Siddurim, the students took out their I Phones with a Siddur. They happily showed me how to download a Siddur on my I Phone, shared electronic Siddurim with others and some of them offered their I Phones since they knew Minchah by heart. Those who came to the Minchah included orthodox men, who stood in one corner of the room and those who seemed comfortable in an egalitarian minyan.

It was quite a sight and I yearned to see them, their energy and commitment to Judaism in my local synagogues. It goes without saying that these students are not the people we should silence and exclude from our communities and synagogues.

And we should not silence rabbis who support Israel and whose position is that the peace process is the road to Israel’s secure future. “A recent report from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) found that one third of American rabbis are reluctant to express their views on Israel because of intimidation by extremist voices in their communities and out of fear of losing their positions. That needs to change, and so the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights co-wrote a petition calling upon all American rabbis and cantors to speak up now in support of Secretary Kerry’s mission to assist Israel and the Palestinians in resolving their conflict in a two-states for two peoples agreement that ends Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and justly resolves all issues and claims, including security, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and water between Israelis and the Palestinians.” [Jewish Journal].

American rabbis and cantors’ call for the right to be part of the debate, and to speak up in support of peace should not just go to their colleagues, but to all of us members of synagogues who should draw on the teaching of the sage Hillel who says, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.”

Hillel instructs us that loving peace is good, but not enough, we must actively pursue it.  We have to be a Rodef Shalom, the pursuer of peace in our communities and beyond. Far from an intra-Jewish hushed event, the very ground of Washington refused a private, hidden, secret moment of pluralism at the conference.

It was a public moment when Vice President Biden gave a rousing keynote in which he charted support of Israel, the Honorable John Lewis offered a moving account of Jewish participation in the civil rights struggle and Nancy Pelosi spoke in support of Israel, and in support of the peace process and a two-state agreement as the way to a secure future.

I offer the bracketed moment of pluralism at the J Street conference not only as a counter-narrative to the ongoing Washington strife, but as a way for a democratic Jewish discussion on Israel in which diverse views are included. Pluralism is Jewish tradition, it is a long rabbinic tradition that promotes diverse views and treats them, as in the makhloket, the debate between Hillel and Shamai, as elu v’elu, אלו ואלו those and those are the living words of God.