Social media is instrumental in forming and reflecting the prevalent views of our society. One sign of its importance is that leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu communicate mainly through Twitter nowadays. And, while many of us may bemoan this fact, the demand for simplistic, polarizing and aggressive political discourse seems as strong as ever.
In our own community, differences of opinion, especially on the topic of Israel, have led to divisiveness. Many Jewish community members choose to avoid the topic altogether. But, while pausing to think before we speak and refraining from saying hurtful things are to be lauded, there are issues that require discussion if we are to ever improve them, ourselves, the community, and the world. We need to create the spaces in which these conversations can safely take place. Any steps we can take to reach that goal, even incremental ones, like holding an event that is admittedly mainstream, but allows for debate on Israel, is a positive development.
This is one reason the Jewish Independent has joined the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Ameinu, Or Shalom, Schara Tzedeck, Beth Israel and Temple Sholom in co-sponsoring Left vs. Right: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. On Oct. 23, J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward and Jonathan S. Tobin of JNS.org – whose visit here is part of a series that has taken them to dozens of other Jewish communities – will model how we can argue passionately about something as heated as our views on Israel while remaining not only respectful of our “opponent,” but maybe even come to like them. (Click here for event information.)
The modeling of civil discourse about contentious issues is also one of the purposes of the Faigen Family Lecture Series, which will take place on Oct. 30. Presented by Vancouver Hebrew Academy, along with several sponsors, this year’s speaker is conservative journalist and commentator Ben Shapiro, who suggests that social media is not the appropriate place to seek dialogue, noting, “you don’t look to Twitter for meaningful conversation.” (Click here for story.)
The JI sponsored the documentary The Oslo Diaries at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival for similar reasons. (The Israel Consulate General, Toronto and Western Canada, also sponsored this film. See jewishindependent.ca/oslo-diaries-peace-possible.)
While we all know that, ultimately, the Oslo Accords failed to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the film shows just how close we came to peace. One of the most important aspects of the documentary, which is based on the diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators of the accords, is the evolution of the relationship between these enemies, which they were at the time.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is a conversation between the two chief negotiators, Uri Savir on the Israeli side and Abu Ala on the Palestinian side. Initially, they compete with regard to the history of their ancestors in Jerusalem and how far back their family ties go. However, they soon agree that they are not at these talks to make a better past but to make a better future. While the Oslo Accords failed for reasons beyond their control, the negotiators accomplished what seemed impossible – they formed an agreement – and Savir and Ala, at least, became friends.
Earlier this year, as part of the Civil Conversations Project of the podcast On Being, host and creator of the show Krista Tippet interviewed Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University in Durham, N.C., who also co-created and co-leads the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif. The whole conversation is fascinating but one exchange illustrates why respectful discourse on controversial topics is so difficult.
First, Tippet notes that agreement shouldn’t be the goal of such discussions, but rather understanding. She gives an example from an interview Antepli did with Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi, where Halevi told Antepli, “I am not a dove. I am not a leftist. My positions are very mainstream, skeptical Israel.” To which Antepli replied, “And I’m not interested in marginal Jews who will agree with everything Muslims believe about Israel.”
Second, in talking about this interview and his relationship with Halevi, Antepli says there is often “a conflation of political disagreement with moral disagreement…. Yossi is like my brother. There is hardly anybody who is closer to me like him, but watch us when we talk about Israeli-Palestinian conflict…. But do I ever doubt his integrity? Do I ever doubt his moral red lines? Do I ever doubt his moral imagination?… I think many people think political disagreement translates itself as moral arguments.”
About her work creating spaces in which her community can engage on controversial issues, Bassin says, “I put out the line that the only people I don’t want in this space are people who are going to physically threaten our security. But, beyond that, I think that we want to welcome as [many] diverse voices as possible…. And it’s been hard, and some people have been challenged by it, but, ultimately, the leadership has really embraced that, because they see the need for it.”
Many of our community leaders and organizations – not just those mentioned here – also see the need, and are continuing or beginning to establish spaces for civil dialogue and debate. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our community to lend them our support – and our voice.