To My Friends on the Right: Don't Delegitimize Me

Jews on the left are ready for a broad dialogue on Israel, but the right often isn't - and still prefers to reject them as self-hating Jews who want to destroy Israel.

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

Many voices in the Israel education world call for dialogue and conversation between Jews on the left and Jews on the right. These voices use a variety of terminology and language, ranging from Makom’s “Hugging and Wrestling," to the Reut Institute’s “Broad Tent," to Donniel Hartman’s call to “engage” with new narratives about Israel, to Encounter’s plea to “develop relationships across political divides.”

But in creating Israel education programs that encourage thoughtful, respectful dialogue between left-wing and right-wing participants, we make different demands on each.

For those on the left, we make a series of complex demands. Engage with Israel even when (or especially when) it angers and frustrates you. Practice resilient listening when those on the right appear racist, xenophobic, or extremist. Try to understand them, to empathize with them, to really listen to their concerns, even as you argue and debate them. Forge your own alliances with liberal Israelis and work with them to change the narrative and direction of Israeli society and the Jewish world.

To those on the right, we make much simpler demands. Really, only one. Do not delegitimize those on the left. Do not accuse them of treachery, of self-hate, of writing themselves out of the Jewish people. Allow them the space to be liberal Zionists.

These two demands don’t seem like much, but in practice, they’re all too infrequently honored. Left-wing Jews find it hard to practice empathetic listening with right-wing counterparts. Sometimes it’s much easier to retreat to like-minded communities who share your liberal values, rather than really try to engage in dialogue with Jews whose opinions you find distasteful.

Dialogue between the right and left is asymmetrical, though. Very rarely do you hear left-wing Jews delegitimize the right-wing’s place in the Jewish community. Right-wing Jews who find themselves in situations where they are the minority amongst left-wingers may be subjected to harshly-worded questions, prejudiced assumptions, and even name-calling that goes too far (most right-wingers are not really “fascists”!) But rarely will you hear a left-wing Jew say that a right-wing Jew’s opinions make him suspect as a Jew. Or that her opinions make her unsuitable to lead a Jewish organization or community. Or that their positions should not be taught to the younger generation.

The same is not true the other way round. Discourse from the right towards the left often spreads beyond name-calling into delegitimization. Left-wing Zionists are accused of consorting with those who wish to destroy Israel, of not really being Zionists, of self-hate, of naivete. No wonder that left-leaning rabbis are nearly twice as likely as those on the right to be fearful of expressing their political opinions in public, as a recent survey by Steven Cohen and Jason Gitlin found.

Creating dialogue between the left and the right is not easy, but we should be more honest about the changes that are needed to make it happen. The left is ready for dialogue; the right often isn’t.

To my friends and colleagues on the right, I say this: I disagree with you profoundly. I think that your position is extremely damaging to Israel’s long-term prospects. I think that you’re not being true to the best of the Jewish ethical tradition. I think that you are ignoring the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to self-determination. Yup, we disagree on virtually everything.

But I’m willing to talk with you, to listen to you, to debate you, to allow you space in my programs and institutions and community, and to admit that you’re a legitimate and welcome member of the overall Jewish and Israeli picture.

All I ask is that you say the same about me.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. The views expressed here are his own.

I’m willing to talk with you, to listen; all I ask is that you say the same (illustrative). Credit: Illustrative

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