How to Survive a Conversation on Israel

Resetting the Table is trying to bring civility to the way the American-Jewish community talks internally about Israel.

Ezra Weinberg

Though it finally looked like spring outside, it felt like winter inside the cavernous and drafty Brooklyn Lyceum on Sunday. Sunlight flooding through the giant arched windows did little to warm the crowd of about 50, some huddling and blowing heat into cupped palms. Far more uncomfortable than the climate, though, was the topic at hand: Israel.

But discomfort in discussing Israel was what brought them there. The event, referred to as a Town Square, was the first public gathering organized by Resetting the Table, a new initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs that’s trying to find a way to get the American-Jewish community to speak civilly about Israel. It’s no small task: As a topic of conversation, Israel has become a poison infecting every area of American-Jewish life – from organizations to families.

“Many organizations have policies to avoid it,” Eyal Rabinovitch told the crowd at the beginning of the event. “Rabbis avoid it. Talking about Israel escalates to aggression and antagonism.” Rabinovitch is one of Resetting the Table’s founders, along with Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, his wife, who heads up the JCPA’s Civility Initiative.

Standing on stage, Rabinovitch asked how many people had experienced heated debate on Israel. All hands shot up. About half admitted to avoiding talk on Israel; a third acknowledged a burned relationship because of the issue.

“People shy away from conversation,” said Sarah Holcman, 30, one of the nine facilitators who led small group discussions at the event. Holcman and her co-facilitators, all in their 20s and 30s – like the majority of the attendees – have been honing their mediation skills as Resetting the Table fellows since November. After semi-monthly meetings and practice runs over Shabbat dinners with friends, this was the first official test of their training.

Feeling politically powerless

Discussion topics in the small groups ranged from broad, theoretical questions, like “How should we teach Israel to American Jews?” to more concrete considerations, like “Should there be ‘red lines’ around who speaks in Hillels, JCCs and other Jewish institutions?” The latter was particularly timely after Swarthmore declared itself the first “Open Hillel” a few months ago by rejecting organizational guidelines about who can or cannot speak at official events.

In the group addressing intergenerational and family conversations around Israel, participants reported being shamed or reprimanded by older members of the community for speaking critically about Israel. One wondered how and when the younger generation is heard and gets to make decisions. “I’m feeling politically powerless on this level,” she said.

On the other side of a white fabric partition, a circle of seven discussed legitimate versus illegitimate criticism of Israel. One participant, noticeably emotional, questioned even the binary framing of that question. But all participants clearly worked to adhere to the communication guidelines distributed upon entry. Among them: Share airtime. Speak for yourself. Listen resiliently.

“I have to watch my words carefully here,” said one participant, before making a point about anti-Semitism in France. Many statements in the groups started, ended or somehow included such warnings, hedging and qualifying. Noticeably missing, though, was the yelling and accusing that generally accompanies disagreements on Israel.

And there was another quality present that is infrequently associated with such talks: concession. “I never thought of that,” said one participant in response to a point made about the Palestinian right of return. It was a moment of calm consideration for an opposing view, so rare in discourse on Israel.

“What are we going to do with this?”

In addition to the facilitators guiding the discussions, Resetting the Table has compiled a cohort of what they call “conveners” who are responsible for bringing these conversations into organizations and targeted communities.

One convener who attended Sunday’s event was 30-year-old Aliza Abrams, a member of the Modern Orthodox community who is working to open up conversations about Israel at Yeshiva University.

A similarly styled conversation is scheduled there in the coming weeks. Rather than focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, though, the YU event will address the ultra-Orthodox draft, a topic that Abrams recognized as a more relevant entry point to Israeli politics for students there.

“I don’t want to be afraid to confront these conversations,” she told Haaretz when asked what attracted her to Resetting the Table. Like-minded friends tend to hold self-affirming conversations, she pointed out, and she was interested in going deeper and challenging perceptions across demographics of the Jewish community.

“We're all struggling with the same questions,” she said.

But to her point: the attendees at the Town Square were a self-selecting crowd of mostly young, engaged Brooklynites, many of whom work professionally in the Jewish community and who actively sought out a space to talk about the problem of talking about Israel. It was by no means a microcosm of the community at large.

“At the end of the day, what are we going to do with this?” asked Kenan Jaffe, 30, a local high school teacher, after the event. “I’m open to talking about it but don’t know how many people in my parents’ generation are.”

So the question facing Resetting the Table is how to translate the sensitive and highly functional conversations that took place on Sunday to synagogue boardrooms and family dining tables. In other words, “How do we go back into a world that’s more adversarial and not so story-sharing?” asked one participant during the group debrief.

A larger constellation

“The Town Square is just part of the larger constellation of processes,” Rabinovitch told Haaretz after the event. “We have had significant demand from a wide range of institutions across the country that are looking for help opening up meaningful, extended engagement for their communities across lines of disagreement and difference.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is increasing the pool of people who can navigate these difficult conversations through all the emotional landmines. That’s where Resetting the Table comes in.

“The greatest tools we have are people who can facilitate conversations, trained in mediation skills and processes that go deep,” Rabinovitch said.

The current Resetting the Table cohort ends its commitment in June, though Rabinovitch hopes to train another group in Israel-related mediation right away and keep the inaugural team active in facilitating conversations at the organizations that seek it.

The need is clearly there, he said. After years of toxic internal fighting, the American-Jewish community is desperate to heal and find a civil way to talk about Israel.

Ezra Weinberg