I was recently in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending a production of my play, “The Last Word…” presented by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. The comedy is about a retired Jewish advertising executive who wants to be a playwright; and an NYU student – also Jewish, also wanting to be a playwright – who interviews for the position of the old man’s assistant. The two couldn’t be more different in their views on everything from politics to women. Nevertheless, by the end of the play they discover each other’s humanity, and one is lead to believe that they’ll be friends for life.
While in the Twin cities, the theatre put me up at the house of one of its board members – an active community organizer with Jewish Community Action. Due to our conflicting schedules, it wasn’t until the last day of my stay that we actually crossed paths. We exchanged pleasantries; I thanked her for her hospitality and she complimented me on the play, but soon our discussion unexpectedly veered toward Israeli politics. (Maybe it was because of my Hebrew sounding name?)
“So are you J-Street or AIPAC?” she bluntly asked as if it was imperative to know what kind of person she was sharing her roof with for the past two nights.
“Ahhh ..” I stalled for time as my mind raced to break down the situation and come up with a response that would be least offensive. After all, there was talk of the theatre doing another one of my plays, and this woman’s house was the go-to digs for out of town playwrights.
At first, I calculated that by mentioning AIPAC after J Street, she was baiting to take the latter me. Supporting my theory was that she had already declared her support for Obama, supported same-sex marriage, and I even got a low-key Marxist feel from her daughter’s bedroom where I was bunking. But then I remembered the living room where there were several framed pictures of the children at Jewish summer camps, and one prominent portrait of the family visiting the Dead Sea. After all, a wrongful pledge of allegiance to J Street could be far more damaging than a lukewarm shout-out to AIPAC. Then again, following Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times about the incendiary nature of the American Jewish lobby, AIPAC didn’t fare much better than the KKK in some circles.
I decided to hedge my bets and be shamelessly uncommitted. “Somewhere in the middle,” I replied with a chuckle intended to alleviate the tension and move on to another subject.
But my gracious host was having none of it. If anything, it only emboldened her resolve: “Oh, so you’re right in the middle?” she pressed on with a chuckle of her own, obviously unwilling to give up until she had a full blown confession.
It was too much for me to take: I panicked. “Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of the settlements … but I also don’t think they’re the main barrier to peace.”
Her head dropped about an inch – even if the smile remained. Something fundamental had changed. Quick good-byes ensued as she rushed out to another protest march, and I grabbed my lift to the airport, well aware that I was probably not going to be paying any more visits to the Land of 1000 Lakes in the near future.
This all might sound like a scene out of a play – (and maybe one day it will be) – but it also seems to be indicative of a growing wedge splitting apart the North American Jewish community. And despite several attempts to hold well-meaning, town hall-style debates between opposing camps (such as the recent “Main Event” at Columbia University between Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis), the tension is palpable, and has, to my knowledge, already split apart friendships, caused family Seders to turn violent, and lead to resignations at synagogues. (How many times have you heard congregation members threatening to quit following a Rabbi’s sermon?)
Of course, I’m not naïve to think that difference of opinions in the Jewish community haven’t been around since the time of Abraham, and, in fact, make us better for it, but the overwhelmingly strong support for the Netanyahu government in Israel is something new to the North American Jew that traditionally votes Democratic, and this puts them in a uncomfortable position. If they sympathize with the majority of Israelis, they betray their fundamental Liberal values. If they side with Obama and the Democratic party, they come off as being self-righteous. And if another Jew thinks any way different from you they are considered either traitors or morons.
Such divisions will most likely only gain momentum as we move toward a potential military conflict with Iran, or as Palestinians step up their pressure for a U.N. Seat, which begs the question: how far off are we from having to declare our political allegiances when we apply to join the local Jewish gold Club. Hopefully, they’ll also include a box for: “Just Jewish.”