A Hunger for Civility


The holiday of Tisha B'Av is not on every Jewish person's radar, but it should be.

The one holiday that hits us in the heat of summer, Tisha B'Av — which begins this year on the evening of July 29 — is a fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 C.E., respectively.

It also has become a day of communal mourning for other major disasters in Jewish history — from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.

Seeking an explanation for the destruction of the Second Temple in particular, the rabbis looked to the Jews' own actions. Interestingly, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg notes in one of his books, "the rabbis focused on Jewish divisiveness. Unjustified hatred among the people had invited the tragedy. … Instead of uniting to oppose the Romans, they spent much time and energy assaulting one another."

As troubling as it is to blame the victim (think Holocaust) for our national tragedies — and we don't want to be alarmist about the potential for future disasters — in this case, the tradition provides a cautionary tale about what can happen when Jewish infighting gets out of hand.

This is particularly relevant as tensions continue to mount between Jerusalem and Washington. As often happens at such times, the left-right debate among American Jews is intensifying as well.

One recent squabble erupted after a staffer at J Street wrote a piece accusing mainstream Jewish leaders of damaging efforts to keep young Jews involved in the community with their criticism of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies.

J Street, which is praised by the left for pressing for U.S. leadership to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace and attacked by the right for supporting pressure on the Jewish state, has made a significant splash on the national political stage, wielding increasing influence in the administration and Congress.

Mainstream groups are proceeding with caution. "Advocate your position, but not at somebody else's expense," the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, was quoted saying after he was named in the J Street opinion piece.

This is not the first — and certainly won't be the last — time that Jewish views on Israel diverge. Jewish debate is a hallmark of our communal vitality, and it should be encouraged as long as it doesn't come at the expense of Israel or our communal civility.

As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a recent JTA story: "Let's have a broad and generous definition of what constitutes pro-Israel."

As we mourn the twice-lost Temple in Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av, let's remember what's at stake.


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