For generations the study house of Hillel and the study house of Shamai were involved in a series of vigorous debates covering all aspects of Jewish law, philosophy and politics. The discussions were fierce and emotionally draining with each side holding nothing back in their attempt to convince both the other and wider Jewish community of their propositions. One oft-forgotten story buried within the Jerusalem Talmud actually describes a fateful day when students of Shamai rose up and physically attacked students of Hillel in the midst of one such argument. It is safe to say that in the first century BCE, Judaism was more polarized than ever before.
Yet the Talmud writes that while Hillel and Shamai were ideological rivals, their children still married one another and they remained a single community. Although they were not monolithic in their worldview, they realized that there was something bigger, something more important, than their difference of opinion and desire to prove the other wrong. Thus, while other religious traditions were torn apart and fractured over debate, Judaism enshrined debate as central to its tradition; something that not only doesn’t detract from Judaism but actually bolsters it.
It’s no secret that Israel will play a central role in American politics over the next year. As our public sphere becomes increasingly divided, there is a serious fear that the longtime bi-partisan support for Israel could devolve into yet another partisan issue. But as I return from the AIPAC Policy Conference, having just heard leaders of both parties passionately speak about their support for Israel, I am hopeful for the future. But, this is only possible if both Democrats and Republicans work together.
Like Hillel and Shamai, Jewish Republicans and Democrats need to continue to place support for Israel above their desire to score easy political points. And, given this immense challenge, both sides of the political aisle have their work cut out for them.
Pro-Israel Democrats must be willing to stand up to those in their own party who threaten the U.S.-Israel alliance. They must be willing to take a stand, potentially losing face with those to their left, to ensure that the Democratic party continues its strong pro-Israel identity. This work will be tough and grueling as those to their right will be attempting to convince them to leave their party while those to the left will demonize them for their protection of Israel. And, most importantly, no matter how polarized the political sphere becomes, Democrats need to continue to work with Republicans for the sake of Israel.
Pro-Israel Republicans have another important job and subsequent challenge. They, too, must stand up to people in their own party but within a very different context. Republicans must not take the bait from others in their party who use and weaponize Israel as a wedge issue and way to entice pro-Israel Democrats to leave their party. Trends like last year’s “Jexodus” or even the ubiquitous but specious comments made by conservative pundits that the Democrats are “anti-Israel” will only serve to hurt Israel in the long run. A well-known 2015 study by the prolific political scientist Alan Abramowitz notes that the majority of voters are actually more likely to determine their political views via what he deems “negative partisanship.” This means that the average voter isn’t mobilized by an overarching love of certain politicians or policies, but rather a fear or hatred of ones they will vote against–usually the ones championed by the opposite party. The more the GOP argues that it is the only pro-Israel party (a common by untrue claim) the more it runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The next year will be a tough one, but we must not shrink from the challenge. If we care about long-term support for Israel, we cannot allow the Jewish and pro-Israel community to be fractured over politics. While there are many important issues that voters will be debating over the next year, we must ensure that Israel isn’t brought down to that level and have its support be subsequently compromised.
Daniel Levine is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine and the Senior Jewish Educator for Orange County Hillel. His email is Dlevine21@gmail.com