The high school classroom was quiet. Thirty pairs of eyes were fixed on me.
I had just finished a presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was time to take questions, and there were plenty. I answered each young person as fairly and honestly as I could, then I stood by the door as the students filed out. “Tell me”, I asked, “what will you take away from this hour together?”
I knew perfectly well what I said. But what did they hear?
A Jewish teen that I vaguely recognized said, “You described exactly the amazing Jewish homeland that I love.”
A serious young man who seemed more like a college student opined, “I still do not see any need for a Jewish state. I don’t believe in nationalism anyway.”
And then a Somali-Muslim teen offered this. “You tried to get us to understand what was going on from the Israeli perspective, but you didn’t do it in a way where blame would be on Palestine only. I feel more open minded now on this subject.”
The Jewish teen didn’t need to be persuaded, and the “sophisticated” anti-nationalist could not be persuaded (at least not then). But the Somali Muslim teen, the one most naturally inclined to side strongly with the Palestinians? Chalk up a victory for the open-minded student and another tiny success for the fanatical moderate speaker.
Over the past decade I have spoken hundreds of times on Israel, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and also about Judaism. Every time I aim for the “sweet spot” that will get someone to say “Hmmm, gotta think about that.”
I first encountered the term “fanatical moderate” when my dear friend Steve Lear used it to describe himself. People on the ideological extremes are already dug in. Why waste energy on them? Being a fanatical moderate is a way of thinking and being that offers the best chance of reaching everyone else.
When it comes to Israel, most people I have encountered are quite open to listening and learning…if you come across as fair, principled, and moderate. And that in no way negates the very real dangers that Israel faces from her enemies.
Striving to be a fanatical moderate means that both Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers” (unforgettable) is on my nightstand, along with Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” (I’m struggling through the chapter on Lydda).
It means that last week I heard a riveting speech by Yossi Beilin at a JStreet program, and also attended “Africa Night for Israel”, a splendid event put on by local Nigerian and Liberian evangelical Christians.
If someone had stood by the door and asked me “What will you take away from this event?” I would have had substantive answers for each.
Our tradition has a brilliant teaching on this subject, found in Pirke Avot, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”
Time and again I have found that people with whom I differ on many subjects often have terrific insights into Israel that had not occurred to me. That helps me craft a message that is compelling and dynamic.
As for the anti-Israel, BDS crowd, I learn from them too- how to sharpen my own arguments in response to theirs. Not to persuade the unpersuadable, but to move the needle among the many people I encounter, both formally and informally, who are open to hearing a fair Jewish perspective.
And yet- seeing Israel only through the prism of conflict is a recipe for tunnel vision and despair. Being a fanatical moderate means knowing that Israel is much more than just a story of conflict.
Israel is a multi-dimensional, vibrant, dynamic, ever-evolving society with many stories waiting to be told. I love telling those stories too!
Did you know that the only Arab bone marrow registry in the world is found…in Israel?
Have you ever met an Israeli whose family was never in exile, a family that has lived continuously in Israel for over two thousand years? Well, I met such a person and wrote about her.
If you are a fellow fanatical moderate (or want to be), then I hope you will read and share this blog with others and come back for more.
Israel is an “iCountry” and the “i” stands for “inexhaustible”. The history, the politics, the food, the music, the people, the culture….you will never get to the end of it, but you will have a spectacular time trying.