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Why Have a Politically Neutral Rosh Hashanah Dinner When You Can Debate Israel?

The different cultures of the world each have their own way of welcoming in a new year. Some usher in their new year with colorful street parades, some with fireworks, some with solemn bells and some with a passionate kiss. As Jews, we traditionally bring in our new year sitting together around the family table. True, this fact does reflect the Jewish preoccupation with food, but no less, it speaks to the premium we place on community and togetherness.

And yet, it is no secret that many Jews look toward their family Rosh Hashanah table with a measure of trepidation. Much as they love their family, they feel unease at the prospect of having, as we say in Israel, “everything on the table” — not just all the food, but all the most delicate, touchy and ultimately significant topics of conversation. Indeed, conversations with those who are closest to us can at times be the most taxing. Our family knows us best, they care about us most and we too care deeply about what they think and say. Family arguments can weigh on us most heavily precisely because the stakes in those conversations are the highest. Nonetheless, year after year, generation after generation, Jews the world over have made a point of reuniting with their families on Rosh Hashanah, together dipping an apple in honey and together wishing for a good and sweet year for all.

The same goes for the Rosh Hashanah table of the Jewish people. The Jewish people has many marvelous achievements to be proud of. Agreeing on important topics has never been one of them. We have always disagreed on and argued about the things we care about, from religious ritual to community affairs to power and politics. But always, we have continued to gather around the same figurative Rosh Hashanah table; always, we have remained one people. Our disputes and arguments did not drive us apart, but kept us engaged with each other.

On the eve of 5776, I feel we need to reaffirm this principle. I worry that we are losing the ability to respectfully and lovingly disagree. Though I came to New York as Consul General of Israel only recently, I have already heard more than once and from all ends of the political spectrum the notion that opposing views within the Jewish community, particularly with regard to Israel, are grounds for boycotting and disengagement.

Israel is something the vast majority of Jewish Americans care about profoundly. So it’s only natural that the policies Israel should adopt and the path it should follow would be something that Jewish Americans disagree about profoundly. That’s why I feel anguish when I hear of a synagogue where Israel is declared a taboo subject, lest its discussion be “controversial,” or when friends tell me I should desist from engaging with certain Jewish organizations that oppose the policy of my government, lest I legitimize their point of view. Since when have Jews seen controversy as something to be avoided? And since when have diverging views on how to best serve the wellbeing of the Jewish state been something illegitimate?

Personally, I believe in earnest that every overture to peace made by Israel or by anyone else in the last 100 years has been ultimately rejected by the Palestinian leadership. And so long as not a single credible Palestinian leader is willing to rise up and openly recognize the Jewish people as also indigenous to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, I am compelled to believe that any other peace proposal Israel could reasonably make would hit the same brick wall of Palestinian intransigence.

This is my opinion. I believe it is true to reality. But I certainly do not believe it is any more or less legitimate than the opinion of someone who believes there is a realistic course of action that Israel has not yet tried and that would lead to an agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the contrary, I would be all too keen to sit down with any Jew of that opinion, hear more about the course of action she proposes and evaluate it together with her. I may not convince her and she may not convince me, but we will have better understood one another and will be better able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

On the issue of religious pluralism too, I am a true believer in the healing power of dialogue. I have spoken to a number of rabbis, men and women, from a variety of schools and denominations. I hear loud and clear the dismay and frustration that some of them express at the lack of progress on a number of crucial and thorny issues. These are, of course, issues hotly debated within Israel itself, among different segments of society and even among different branches of government. Here we clearly have a problem and I do not pretend to know how we can reach a solution. But what I do know is that so long as we remain engaged with each other, so long as we are not tempted to disconnect, there is always hope that a solution can be hastened.

Some worry that arguing about all these “sensitive” matters might drive as apart. I am convinced that if we conduct our arguments in the right spirit and in the Jewish tradition of mahloket leshem shamayim (a dispute for the sake of heaven), they can bring us together instead. This means arguing not with the goal of achieving unanimity (we don’t even have a word for that in Hebrew) but with the goal of achieving solidarity.

The worrying trend of dialogue giving way to vitriol is of course not unique to the Jewish people. All around us, the world over, we see the pitch of public discourse becoming shriller, harsher and more hurtful. Increasingly, people are turning from talking and listening to silencing and boycotting. Let us make a new year’s resolution to stand together, left and right, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, to protect the Jewish world from this unhappy trend. Let us make a pledge to keep on talking to one another, keep on listening to one another and keep on arguing around the family Rosh Hashanah table of the Jewish people. If we do so, I am certain it will be a good and sweet year for all.

Ambassador Dani Dayan is the Consul General of Israel in New York.


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