Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University and renowned scholar, has often said, “In the Jewish community, sometimes it is necessary to compromise on your values for the sake of unity. Other times, it is necessary to forego unity in order to uphold your values.”
When it comes to pro-Israel discourse, the community has consistently prioritized having a unified voice over accommodating dissent. This is especially true of dissent that comes from individuals and groups critical of the status quo in Israel. The silencing of these voices is damaging not only to the Jewish community, but also to Israel.
While unity is sometimes important in order to maintain communal cohesion, it has taken on almost sacred meaning in our community. But this emphasis on unity is contrary to the way we Jews otherwise engage with politics and how we engage with our Jewish tradition. A show of unity is not more pressing than our concern for Israel, whose future as a democracy and a Jewish state is put into question as the occupation persists. Suggestions to the contrary are what should make us uncomfortable.
Recently, at Brandeis University, the desire for unity has come into tension with different pro-Israel groups’ distinct values.
At an event co-sponsored by Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, Barak Raz, a former spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, presented a narrative that at points misrepresented the facts on the ground. When he claimed that there are no checkpoints in the West Bank, a J Street U Brandeis student leader responded by asking about the Qalandiya checkpoint. Motivated by deep frustration, the question was not asked calmly. Members of the audience clapped in agreement. The tension increased.
The conversation that should have resulted is one that explores the facts that motivated the student to express his disagreement. Instead, what resulted was a conversation that the pro-Israel community prefers to have — one that suppresses disputes for the sake of unity.
Some students targeted J Street U, pressuring us to keep our disagreements with the rest of the community private and to refrain from having conversations that challenge opposing viewpoints. Behind these efforts is the notion that the Israel conversation is only open to those who unquestioningly support all of Israel’s actions.
As J Street U leaders who’ve worked to expand the pro-Israel tent for years, we suddenly felt that the cooperation and shared goals we championed were working against our ability to express our values. When standing firmly by our principles, we were scolded for being divisive.
Being in the pro-Israel tent does not mean we have identical values and goals. It does not mean rallying around opinions we do not all share for the sake of “unity.” And certainly it does not mean being prohibited from standing up for what we believe.
The crisis that Israel faces today is urgent, and often disputes are the appropriate responses. The pro-Israel tent doesn’t matter if it can’t hold disagreement. Different opinions keep us honest, and ensure that we, as a community, do not fall into conversations that replace critical thinking and substantive dialogue with talking points repeated in an echo chamber.
At Brandeis, rather than obliging those who wanted to “reunify” the pro-Israel community by compromising on our values, J Street U decided to take a different route. We composed a statement, issued in partnership with Hillel, BIPAC (a group that identifies and works with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby) and bVIEW (a campus initiative that promotes productive Israel dialogue). The statement for the first time defines being “in the tent” as being able to engage in conversations that have disagreements.
This statement shows our commitment, as pro-Israel groups, to a conversation that doesn’t use appeals to civility and unity to silence dissenting voices. Instead, we came together around the belief that “disagreement is valuable in a civil conversation, and contributes to its strength and vibrancy.” Underlying this is our conviction that the Jewish community is strong enough to withstand — and even more so, should encourage — disagreements.
This statement provides a vision of what a real, meaningful pro-Israel tent looks like. The tent is held up not only by the acceptance of different opinions, but by a commitment to hearing and engaging these voices, even when they talk about things that are uncomfortable or challenging for us to hear.
When having pro-Israel unity consistently means we must compromise on our democratic and Jewish values, perhaps it is time we forego it.
Catie Stewart and Eli Philip are co-presidents of J Street U Brandeis. Eli, a graduate of Barrack Hebrew Academy, is a member of Lower Merion Synagogue. Catie is a member of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.