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Brent E. Sasley

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Talking To, Not At, Each Other

Posted: 06/24/11 05:36 PM ET

The Allison Benedikt story and its aftermath raise urgent questions for the Diaspora Jewish community. Why do Diaspora Jews feel compelled to publicly discuss the evolution in their feelings for Israel? And explain what kinds of Zionists they are? And vehemently disagree with those who don't share their same position?

Of course it's important to have such conversations. Israel is part of the community's identity, and its member care deeply about what it does (and how that might reflect on them) and what happens to it.

But at some point, the community cannot continue to be defined by what its members think about Israel. And after awhile, the conversations themselves become repetitive, boring, distracting, rude, and shrill.

The community is caricaturing itself right out of a Philip Roth novel, shoving its angst down its own throat. At the same time, it's caricaturing itself into two specific groups: Those obsessed with criticizing Israel, and those obsessed with lauding it.

Each group has created its own narrative, which it has elevated into a combination of myth and truth. The first group considers it the moral, universal-humanist thing to do to point out Israel's immoral actions in its foreign policy (toward the Palestinians) and in its domestic policy (illiberal democratic norms). The second group considers it the moral, Jewish thing to do to highlight the unwillingness of the Palestinians to make peace, trumpet Israeli security concerns, and underline its thriving democracy.

Like any meta-narrative, both have become so entrenched that it has become too difficult to question them and move beyond them, and especially to find common ground between them. Thus, those who criticize Israel are branded as self-hating Jews who'd rather assimilate to please the Gentiles than as Jews who care about their own people. And those who defend Israel are marked as bloodthirsty and vengeful soldiers who wear blinders and consider themselves so superior to others they are immune to criticism.

Of course these are caricatures themselves. But that is the point.

The other problem with this unconscious (or maybe conscious) insistence on dividing the community in two is that every blog post, op-ed, story, and news item becomes a site for proxy wars between members of each group. It's as though the Diaspora community has now created its own culture wars, and there doesn't seem to be any momentum against them.

All of this moves people away from the critical issues at hand. It's certainly acceptable -- indeed, it is healthy and desirable -- to disagree and debate over Israeli policy and what Diaspora Jews should do about it. But stop focusing on whether Allison Benedikt loves or hates Israel, or herself.

Instead of talking at each other, a more constructive conversation would eschew criticisms of individuals (or groups) and focus on policy differences. This will move the community toward a serious effort to discuss how it can best promote Israeli and regional interests.

Of course, it begins with a discussion of what, exactly, are Israeli interests and whether they are compatible with regional interests. That is a very tricky discussion, but it, too, can and should be done in a productive and practical manner.

Most members of the community, I'd bet, want to see Israel be prosperous, secure, Jewish, and democratic. Some certainly don't care, and legitimate differences exist over where the balance should be (how Jewish compared to how democratic, what it means to be secure). But figuring all this out is the important part. Such questions should be given the time and gravity they are due.

 

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