This month, we at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Connecticut did something that most synagogues and Jewish organizations have refused to do: We held a forum about the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS) with participants from pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace and from anti-BDS J Street.
Lightning didn’t strike, and the walls of the synagogue didn’t come crashing down. No one was attacked, verbally or otherwise. No one was even interrupted.
In our Reform congregation of 235 families, we have developed a culture of civil discourse about difficult issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This culture is the result of a multi-year process that began with training from Jewish Dialogue Group and the creation of a corps of congregant-facilitators who have helped us talk about tough issues.
We, the rabbi and the social action chair, supported this forum because we believe that when we can speak and listen without fear of being marginalized for our views, we can gain understanding of the issues and form well-grounded opinions. Folks came away with a clearer understanding of what the BDS movement stands for, and of where they stand on this issue as individual Jews.
Through this dialogue, the two of us each came to the conclusion that we firmly oppose the BDS movement because it does not support an Israel that is Jewish as well as democratic and secure. Perhaps more importantly, we came away with a clearer understanding of the dynamics that have led a Jewish organization — JVP — to support BDS, and why it may become increasingly attractive to others. Like many Jews in this country, we look at the injustices that accompany Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza and cannot help but feel that this is wrong and that action is needed. For many, boycotts and disinvestment are tempting options for doing something, and JVP seems to be the only one not just talking.
Mainstream Jewish organizations should change our policy and engage in direct discussion with any Jewish organization (like JVP) that supports BDS. The apparent policy of JFNA, Hillel, ADL, AJC and others to refuse to appear and debate with supporters of BDS, for fear of conferring “legitimacy” or “credibility,” is not only not working, but also mistaken.
By refusing to allow the best-informed speakers to present the many arguments against BDS, the Jewish community is losing political and PR battles unnecessarily. For anyone other than true believers, legitimacy and credibility come from the ideas themselves, not speculation on the motive of the speaker. If the audience only hears the pro-BDS position, it seems legitimate and credible.
In the U.S., where vigorous debate is tradition as well as constitutional policy, the failure to respond is likely interpreted (wrongly) as a lack of ability to respond. For Jews, who have inherited the ancient rabbinic tradition of debate and of preservation of minority voices, the refusal of mainstream Jewish leaders to sit at the table with fellow Jews comes across as suppression of dissent.
And it is no defense that the Jewish organizations provide their own speakers at separate events opposing BDS. In our free-speech democracy, people who refuse to confront pro-BDS forces directly look like they’re hiding or afraid of something.
The refusal to oppose pro-BDS forces directly is also a huge organizational mistake for the Jewish community. It means failing to reach out to the “silent majority,” those who feel strongly Jewish but are unaffiliated with mainstream Jewish organizations. As a result, the information and argument that the unaffiliated receive is largely pro-BDS, potentially further alienating them. And as JVP supporters make clear that they support Israel’s right to exist, but merely disagree with its policies (which seems to mirror the views of those unaffiliated Jews, according to the Pew study), the unaffiliated may be further persuaded.
Finally, the coordinated refusal of mainstream Jewish organizations to entertain debate about BDS may actually hurt us in our fight against rising anti-Semitism. Last year’s ADL study premised a showing of significantly increasing anti-Semitism on responders seeing Jews not as individuals but as a monolithic group. Yet the “excommunication” of supporters of BDS, pressuring others not to dialogue (as our synagogue was pressured) or even throwing out chapters that merely entertain debate on BDS (as Hillel has done) might suggest to the average listener that there is a monolithic Jewish “establishment,” which those of us within the American Jewish community know does not exist.
Earlier this year, Eric Fingerhut, the national head of Hillel, reneged on a commitment to appear at a conference hosted by J Street because a Palestinian negotiator would also be appearing. An uproar from student members of J Street led to a later statement from Fingerhut, which, while not disavowing his action, was instructive: “We also clearly have work to do in the Jewish community at large to be one people that respects, honors and celebrates its diversity rather than fearing it.”
For those of us who believe in a Jewish, democratic and secure state of Israel, how do we take strong action so that those who find themselves leaning towards the BDS movement will be convinced to work with us instead? We do not yet have all the answers to this question, but we know that dialogue is the first step.
Rachel Goldenberg is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek and a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet. Andy Schatz is chair of social action at CBSRZ and board president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. The personal views expressed here are not intended to represent the views of any organization.