Disruptions of Birthright trips by American Jews identified with the group IfNotNow are the latest manifestation of the divisiveness that has befallen Jewish discourse on Israel. For the past few months, these young activists have been accusing Birthright of hiding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from trip participants; part of what they claim is a pattern of American Jewish institutions supporting the occupation of the Palestinian people. Regardless of one’s view of the group’s position and tactics, the IfNotNow/Birthright debate illustrates how political discourse becomes fraught when fundamental understandings of core Jewish values clash.
The idea that political views are shaped predominantly by the way we understand and interpret values is the launching point for OC iEngage, a community-wide conversation about Israel introduced last fall by the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services in partnership with the renowned Shalom Hartman Institute and nine local congregations and Jewish organizations. Once a force that united world Jewry, Israel has become a source of deep division within the Jewish world. Heated arguments and acrimony typically replace reasoned conversation about some of the biggest challenges facing Israel, including the conflict, the focus of OC iEngage. As a result of this divisiveness, many organizations avoid discussing the conflict, some Jewish groups and individuals are being marginalized or ostracized, and an alarming number of young Jews are opting out of a relationship with Israel.
OC iEngage seeks to lower the temperature on Israel conversations by creating a non-threatening space where learners can explore how people come to hold the views they do about Israel and the conflict. Starting with the assumption that good, intelligent and informed people can confront a set of facts and a particular reality and reach different though mutually legitimate conclusions, the curriculum unpacks six core Jewish values – peace, land, justice, compromise, self-preservation, and exceptionalism – that shape political views on the conflict. Biblical, Talmudic and contemporary Jewish philosophy texts give insight into the different ways these values are interpreted in Jewish tradition and provide a framework for understanding the spectrum of views on the conflict.
More than 200 adult and student learners are currently participating in iEngage seminars around the county. The program teaches skills to engage civilly in areas of deep dispute, with the goal of changing and shaping the way we talk about politics and Israel.
As part of OC iEngage, the Orange County Jewish community will welcome Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America on Tuesday, February 26. A leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, Kurtzer will lead a values-based conversation on the growing gap between Jews in Israel and North America. The program will be held at Temple Beth El of South Orange County, 2A Liberty, Aliso Viejo beginning at 7pm. It is free and open to everyone, whether or not they are in an OC iEngage learning group.
LISA ARMONY IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.