Rabbi I Have a Problem

Has the debate over Israel in the diaspora got out of control?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss contemporary issues of Jewish life


QUESTION:  Has the debate over Israel among diaspora Jews got out of control and is there more that rabbis across the community should be doing to encourage Jews to be more civil towards each other?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer In a word, yes. The debate over Israel has got way out of control. The strident tone, the offensive language and symbols invoked, and the personal nature of the attacks is shameful and counterproductive. For a people whose culture celebrates constructive disagreement and argument for the sake of heaven, it is surprising that we have stooped to hateful mudslinging.

As to the second part of your question, I am not for giving advice to other rabbis, but I will gladly share with you a framework that this particular rabbi thinks might be helpful.

Firstly, separate the person from the position. You can argue vehemently against a position while still treating with respect those who hold it. The Talmud tells of how the schools of Hillel and Shammai, while in almost perpetual disagreement over halachic matters, still loved each other to the extent that they married into each other’s families.

Secondly, ascribe positive motives to those who disagree with you. Part of what has made this debate so painful is the inability of either side to ascribe positive motives to each other. You can believe those who disagree with you are misguided, but don’t assume they are bad or mad. The Mishnah urges us always to judge another favourably. Applying this wise teaching to our current inter-communal debate would go some way to defusing tension and avoiding the crass caricaturisation of those who hold opposing views. 

Thirdly, listen carefully, you might learn something. Part of what makes this debate so tragic is that it is not a debate. A debate implies a conversation and to participate in a conversation one listens as well as speaks. On the Israel issue, there is much shouting across a widening chasm but no one is really listening to each other. The Talmud tells us that the school of Hillel would not only listen carefully to the views of their opponents but that they would cite these opposing views first, before framing their own position.

Fourthly, appreciate that the debate about Israel is not entirely about Israel. Israel is a proxy for a much deeper, complex debate around the nature of Jewish identity, competing Jewish values and the tension between Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism. It is really not possible to make any progress on the Israel-related issue without recognising and grappling with these deeper undercurrents.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Jonathan Romain: It is true that hugely unpleasant language has been used when discussing Israel. In fact, it is so derogatory that concern about the level of abuse has taken over from the points being made on either side. Instead, the key issue now is: how should we argue Jewishly?

Personal insults are not only lacking in civility, but do nothing to advance a person’s cause. Describing someone else as, for instance, a traitor just antagonises them and makes sure that they do not listen to what you have to say. 

Berating your opponent may make you feel good, and even lead to applause from those who share your opinion, but it will do nothing to change the other’s person’s point of view. It begs the question, what is your object: to have a rant or to win the debate?

Still, this is not a new problem. It is just that vile talk used to be limited to private circles — be it at the dinner table or down at the pub — but is now broadcast to society at large, even internationally, thanks to social media. It is endemic, but that does not make it any more acceptable.

We can learn from the competing followers of Hillel and Shammai, who were constantly arguing over interpretation of the law. Although decisions had to be made in each instance, thereby creating winners and losers, it was recognised that both opinions “are the words of the Living God”.

In other words, fierce rivals could differ strongly, but still accept that the other party was arguing from a position of integrity. They may have rejected each other’s views, but never denied their sincerity or legitimacy.

There is nothing wrong with contentious debate and challenging what we see around us, otherwise progress is never made, but, following the words of Brer Rabbit (or should that be the Brerer Rebbe), “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”,  we need to frame our words respectfully; and the more skilfully we do so, the more likely we are to win over others.

Remember that, until recently, we had the same problem over internal religious divisions. Insults were regularly exchanged between Orthodox and Progressives in sermons and the pages of the JC, until a truce was declared via the Stanmore Accords, whereupon it was agreed to disagree politely. It worked. We need to do the same with Israel.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email 

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