Talking about Israel as a family
Sixty-eight years ago, when Israel was born and became the state of the Jewish people, a family was created. As with any other family that has a complex history, there is love and arguing, support and fallings out in the Israel mishpacha. To make things trickier, Israel is what we would call a blended family, whose members come from wildly varying geopolitical, socio-cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds.
This variety makes for a richness you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere – the intensity and vigor of which those visiting or missing Israel so often speak. However, the blended Israeli family is fraught with tensions brought about by both the baggage each member has and the difficult neighborhood in which they live. Because Israel is the only Jewish state in the world – our only “family home” – each discussion about it feels of utmost consequence, even to Israel’s extended family of Diaspora Jews, who feel strongly about their connection to that familial home and the relatives living in it.
Not long ago, the announcement that singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) had been invited to perform at our community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on May 11 set in motion a heated debate about where we draw our red lines when it comes to criticizing Israel. The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver made a decision to welcome Noa despite the objections of individuals who disagree with the artist’s political views, and Ezra Shanken, JFGV’s chief executive officer, expressed his hope that our community would continue the Jewish tradition of welcoming diversity of opinion and embracing respectful debate. As we celebrate Israel’s 68th birthday, I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at how our blended family handles conflict and disagreements when they arise from within, and do a little cheshbon nefesh, soul searching, about how we each might be contributing both to the family’s well-being, as well as to internal friction and divisiveness.
With Israel, we so often focus on the external conflicts, sometimes at the expense of looking at what is happening in our own backyard, and this is something we cannot afford to do any longer. For our blended family to thrive and prosper, it is not enough anymore to stand united against enemies. The strength of a tight-knit family depends less on the extent to which its members agree on every issue, and more on how they communicate their disagreements and live with differing points of view under one roof. We all share a moral obligation to set an example for the children and youth in our community, and show them that the Israeli family of which they are a part is strong and confident enough to welcome and even encourage different opinions and points of view.
So, how do we have disagreements and important discussions without engaging in the kind of destructive behavior and accusations that tear at our familial fabric? Is it possible to have difficult conversations from a place of mutual respect, even when we don’t see eye to eye? I speak from experience when I say that, while not easy, it is, in fact, possible. I have friends from across the political, national and religious spectrums, and I cherish the ongoing, sometimes challenging, conversations I have with them about Israel. With those conversations in mind, I would like to offer a few points to consider and some basic strategies I have found helpful when discussing Israel.
We have something important in common. Whenever you engage in a discussion with a fellow member of the tribe who holds different opinions about Israel than you do, remember that you wouldn’t be having that difficult conversation if it weren’t for the fact that you both care enough about Israel to take the time and argue. If you are not sure this is the case, ask the person a simple question: Do you care about Israel? If they answer yes, then, as surprising as it may sound, you have some common ground – a starting point for a respectful exchange of ideas. It is not always comfortable to accept that someone who holds a political view we disagree with comes, as we do, from a place of caring about Israel. But that is a discomfort we should learn to lean into and work with if we want to help foster within our community the democratic value of free speech – the same value that sets Israel apart from other countries in the Middle East.
Respond rather than react. Yes, there is a difference between the two. When we react, we re-act specific lines, roles and dialogues, just as a well-rehearsed actor in a long-running play would do. Unsurprisingly, reaction-based discussions usually feel like rather irritating déjà vus. When we respond, we do so from a sense of responsibility (response-ability): we know that we are not merely actors with memorized lines, and that we have the freedom to improvise, to choose to keep an open mind in those conversations where our default mode is to be judgmental, get defensive or go on the offensive.
Next time someone says something about Israel that makes you want to yell at them, “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” or “How can you say something like that?!” ask instead “Can you tell me more about what you just said?” It won’t feel natural at first because improv moves us out of our comfort zone. Nevertheless, try it. Be curious. We all have a human need to be heard and we all know how unpleasant it feels when our words are ignored or dismissed. Really hearing someone out is a beautiful, positive way to practise what Rabbi Hillel believed to be the essence of the Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.
Respect the importance of our personal histories. So much of who we are, what and how we think and how we feel about any given issue is a result of our personal history. When and where we were born and raised, our family’s past, our religious background, the influential people and key experiences in our lives – all of these and more also contribute to how we relate to Israel. If we understand that each one of us has such a personal history that affects our worldviews and that these histories differ from person to person, we move a step closer to accepting that it is inevitable for a variety of opinions about Israel to exist within our community. Once we accept this truth, we can choose to find it in ourselves to treat with respect even those with whose opinions we disagree.
In Hebrew, the words kavod (respect), kibud (honoring/acknowledging) and koved (weight/difficulty) all stem from the same root. Truly respecting “the other” and acknowledging from where they come and their right to hold different opinions to ours can, indeed, feel difficult and burdensome at times. Yet, if we want to help create a strong community that honors the histories and diversity of all its members, we should view this effort to respect the other as a blessed weight that we choose to carry, like that of an unborn child.
If you are a regular reader of the Jewish Independent, it is safe to assume that you, too, care about Israel. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday this year, I invite you to envision the kind of legacy or family heirloom we want to leave for the next generations in our community. In my mind, I see a vibrant, warm, colorful, imperfect and unique patchwork quilt to which each of us can add a symbolic piece of ourselves as the dialogue about our beloved Israel continues to unfold. What is your vision? And what are you willing to do to make it a reality?
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches us that “it is not upon us to complete the work, but that neither are we free to desist from it.” Our work as fellow members of the extended and blended Israeli family is to do tikkun olam (repair of the world). And tikkun olam begins with us, at home and in our community. So, in our conversations about Israel, let us all commit to being a bit more curious and a little less judgmental. Let’s treat one another with kavod and remember that the strength of our family is directly proportionate to our ability to be kind to one another.
Yael Heffer is an educator who has been working with children and families in the Vancouver Jewish community for close to 10 years. She is currently completing her master’s in child and youth care, is involved in social emotional learning research and is training as a clinical counselor. She grew up in South America, Germany and Israel and is a strong advocate of nonviolent communication.