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The Editor's Desk: Tough Conversations

At the JCC, those who feel strongly about Israel and its Gaza campaign gather to share their thoughts in a safe, structured space.

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 20:00
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

The woman to my left said she felt “overwhelmed” and “emotional” in dealing with the news about Israel’s war in Gaza. The heavy volume of postings on her Facebook page were so upsetting, with their criticism of Israeli actions, that she was considering “unfriending” some of her online correspondents.

The woman across the table from her, older than the rest of us, said she wasn’t a Facebook user but that she, too, felt “overwhelmed” in reading about the war and seeing it on TV. “I feel horrible for both sides,” she said. Admitting that her knowledge of the Mideast was sketchy, she said she had come in part to this evening’s communal dialogue, entitled “Israel Talks” and held at the JCC in Manhattan, to learn “more accurate information” about who started the conflict and why.

But the facilitator at the table, Jonathan Cummings, director of intracommunal affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York, patiently explained that the purpose of this two-hour pilot session was not informational; it was rather an opportunity for those present to share their feelings about the current Mideast conflict in a safe environment. (I was invited as aparticipant/reporter, agreeing not to identify attendees by name.)

Cummings is director of Israel Talks, a project of the JCRC created two years ago to promote dialogue and diversity in the New York community at a time when, its founders and many observers agree, the discourse on Israel is highly divisive, even toxic.

A few minutes earlier, before splitting us into small groups for roundtable discussions, Cummings and Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living, had introduced the program to the 50 or so JCC members who had signed up for the one-night event. They explained that it was intended to help people talk personally about Israel and share their experiences in grappling with the complexity and uncertainty of the current situation in Gaza.

Implicit in the introduction and in the underlying purpose of the project, is that Jerusalem today, in its politics and policies, can be a source of great pride and inspiration to some and a cause for deep embarrassment, and worse, for others. For many it is all of the above. And the latest round of war with Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, seemed to underscore the confusion in our community about the powerful need for Israel to protect its citizens from rocket attacks and tunnel invasions while at the same time invoking feelings of anguish and discomfort at the heavy loss of civilian life in Gaza.

Some of the roundtable discussions that night experienced sharp political differences, though ours did not. The four women and I at our table had been to Israel, and agreed that our primary concern in this conflict was security for its citizens. Several times the conversation turned to frustration with the international community’s seeming unwillingness to blame Hamas for the bloodshed, compounded by media coverage that often casts Israel in a negative light. Each time Cummings gently sought to bring the discussion back to our personal Israel experiences and feelings, and toward hearing each other carefully and respectfully. One goal of these talks is the pursuit of “mutual understanding rather than agreement or immediate solutions,” according to the definition of “dialogue” adopted by Israel Talks. The two-page explanation of the format, given to each of us to read and agree to, noted that dialogue is not debate.

The talk at our table was respectful throughout, with some poignant moments. One woman spoke of how annual visits to Israel in recent years with her husband, who had once lived there, had transformed her politics on the subject from dove to hawk.

“Israelis have to persevere,” she said. “They have the only Mideast country that is flourishing and giving back to the world, and everyone wants to take it away from them.”

Another, who described her “three-day-a-year Reform” upbringing, said she visited Israel alone last year and “cried every day,” becoming deeply attached. “We can’t take Israel for granted,” she said, and worries: “Will Israel exist in 15 or 20 years?”

But she added, about the current fighting: “Why do they strike at hospitals? Their mistakes are so painful.”

A third woman captured the internal struggle for many when she said that when she sees scenes of suffering in Gaza she turns off the television, aware that “I’ve turned off some of my sensitivity; I just don’t want to go there.”

In the end there were no great revelations or dramatic breakthroughs, at least at our table, but that was not the goal of the evening. It was, rather, to show that safe, guided discussions can be a way for members of our deeply divided community to sit down and talk — and listen — to each other about Israel. All too rare an exercise these days.

Rabbi Cohen of the JCC later said the feedback from participants was positive. “People found it cathartic, and appreciated the structure of the conversation,” she said, adding that the JCC hopes to continue to sponsor Israel-oriented programs in various forms.

One of my tablemates had suggested that future Israel dialogues include members of the Palestinian community, though another voiced skepticism about the lasting effect of such discussions. Cummings said the ongoing challenge for Israel Talks is “to have people listen and try to understand someone else’s views,” a problem magnified and intensified in the age of social media, with its hostile blogs and anonymous rants.

The JCRC project is continuing to expand its work in the fall with a series of ongoing discussions in several Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods, bringing together members of synagogues and other institutions.

It’s a shame that we’ve come to the point where we need a communal organization to foster respectful dialogue among Jews discussing Israel, which has become such a hot-button issue. But that’s the reality, so let’s hope the Israel Talks efforts are supported and bear fruit. If we can’t talk to each other, how can we communicate with the rest of the world?

American Jews, Israel-Gaza Conflict, Support For Israel

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Why is not the international community outraged, and appalled at ISIS'S treatment of Christians, beheadings of children and others, raping women, selling women into sex slavery??? Islam is not content to kill all Jews. The Christian world, yes , all of you are next, and it has started already. Why is there not a HUGE HUGE OUTCRY AGAINST ISIS and Christian genocide. The Koran teaches to convert them or kill all non Muslims. The number of Christian deaths is rising. Radical Muslims have gained inordinate control in many countries in Europe. But the criticism of Israel in defending her citizens in Gaza is what the press, all of the press, including the distorted brains at the NYTimes are obsessed with.
Deaths of muslims by muslims syria/iraq, ISIS annhiliatiing the Christian minority does not disturb anyone. Jihadist flags in front of the White House do not disturb anyone. The nauseating press is controlled by......... wish i knew. But then I would be accused of paranoia and radicalism. WHY is the Christian world not up in arms about ongoing genocide. Coming soon to a theater near you, first in Europe......will it be to late for people to open their eyes, the Jews are just the beginning of the Muslim agenda. Per their Koran. read it.

After ghettos, pogroms, holocaust and the ever present Islamist jihad threats, there is ample justification for a Jewish homeland as a safe haven in perpetuity for the Jews of the world. . . . Trust must be earned, and there is little evidence of good faith by the terrorists under the banner of Hamas, Muslim Botherhood, etc. . . . If the rockets stop, buses of tourists are not burned, etc., the growth of peace can bring about open borders and good neighbors. . . . Until then, Israel must protect its people - maintaining the boundaries and retaliating mightily until terrorists are stopped in their tracks. . . . What is happening from Al Queda and ISIS shows what follows a peacenik response. Terror is an act of viscious vipers and the barbarians must be ground underfoot! - Reformed Church pastor.

You say, 'How is Hamas qualified as a terrorist group and the Knesset not?'
When you ask ridiculously absurd questions like that, you communicate this message - 'I have very little knowledge and I should not be taken seriously.' Have a nice day.

'We believe that the occupation is wrong and is punishing innocent Palestinian civilians. We believe that it is hurting Jewish people everywhere.'
First, there is no 'occupation', but put that issue aside. Remember, the Gazans democratically elected Hamas to lead their government. The Gazans know exactly who Hamas is. They understand clearly what Hamas believes and does. It is simply wrong to describe the average Gazan citizen as 'innocent'. They are not. Were the majority of German people under Nazi leadership innocent? Didn't they realize that Hitler was a rabid Jew hater, that he rounded up Jews and sent them to death camps? I guarantee you that Hitler didn't murder 6 million Jews by himself. He had a lot of help. The IDF found miles and miles of tunnels under mosques, hospitals, and even schools. The tunnels required many, many people to dig them and took several years of effort. Their construction was a massive undertaking which could not possibly have gone unnoticed by the general public. How can you say to the world that Palestinians living in Gaza are not complicit in Hamas's war crimes?
You say, 'We are not anti-semitic, we are not self-hating...' O.K. I believe you. But you are reciting cliches - 'not self hating', 'occupation', 'innocent Palestinian civilians'. You are not thinking for yourself. You are repeating Arab-leftist talking points which is actually mindless activity.

These first two comments are typical of people that do not understand history, or for that matter, do not want to understand one simple truth. Look at history and understand that Israel would make peace in a moment's notice with a people that want peace. The Palestinians, governed by Hamas, do not or will not make peace. This is a simple truth. What other excuse will you give when one day your so-called 'occupation' ends and the Palestinians still wage war? What will your excuse be at that time to hate Israel?

How is Hamas qualified as a terrorist group and the Knesset not? I am fairly sure the residents of Gaza are pretty terrified considering the brutal use of force by a neighbors superior armed forces dedicated to cleansing the area of Palestinians who were and are being murdered and expelled for no other reason than they were there first, and somehow object to the idea of an invading imperial force, (UK) stealing their land, then handing it out to a pack of euroterrorist calling themselves Zionist. If you take a moment to do a little homework, you will find that the vast vast vast majority of Semites in the middle East are not even Jews. The majority of Israelis are form Europe and America. Many if not most as so loyal to Israel that they still maintain US citizenship. Many many others would not be caught living in the hell hole Israel is and has created for everyone else, preferring instead to be wealthy in CA, NY, MD FL and NJ.

"Dedicated to cleansing the area of Palestinians?" You've go to be kidding. Israel is trying to stop terrorists from terrorizing its citizens -- period!
Hamas puts its citizens in the line of fire, then cries foul. The IDF captured a Hamas manual on urban warfare which documents its plan to put its own innocent people in harms way as a way of promoting its evil cause. And it has been shown that bodies were dragged to a school to make it look as though that's where they were killed.

All of you who support Israel need to recognize that there is a large and growing portion of the Jewish community that is appalled at Israel's actions. We are not anti-semitic, we are not self-hating, we are a concerned part of the Jewish community. You may not agree with us, but I suggest you open your mind and hear our point of view. We believe that the occupation is wrong and is punishing innocent Palestinian civilians. We believe that it is hurting Jewish people everywhere.

To L Saltzman,
We don't agree with you because Hamas fired first. There you are, easy.

I don't think that "there is a large and growing portion of the Jewish community that is appalled at Israel's actions." The number of Jews who have shown up at the various anti-Israel protests in the last several weeks has been relatively miniscule. However, they seem to receive a disproportionately large amount of media coverage.