Hayim Herring

A Bigger Seder Table Next Year

Next year in Jerusalem, or wherever you are, I hope that you have a bigger Seder table. I don’t necessarily mean more family members, friends and guests. What I mean is a bigger-minded, more generous-hearted group of people, who are passionate Zionists, but hold diverse understandings of what it means for the State of Israel to be Jewish, secure and democratic. To explain…

The Seder table encourages and legitimizes dissent. A prelude to retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the passage about the four children. These characters are archetypes, reminding us that before we enter into discussions around one of our central, defining narratives as a people, we should prepare for controversial, constructive conversation. We don’t retell this story only one way; we transmit it from different angles, so that it will resonate with all who have a seat at the table. One child has unquestioningly internalized the Exodus narrative as transmitted. Another provocatively challenges the inherited version. But, what is most significant is that they all have a seat at the table because we need the bearers of the traditional narrative as much as we need those who critique it. Within a framework of commitment, diverse viewpoints enrich our self-understanding as a people and make us more vital.

Ironically, today, we are more at ease including people from other faith traditions than we are with incorporating diversity in our own community. For example, you can easily find a multi-faith Passover Seder, with Jewish, Muslim and Christian participants. In America, many family Seders include people who are not Jewish—a welcome development. But when it comes to discussions within the American Jewish community about Israel, we have reduced the number of seats at the table. Discussions about Israel have become more narrow, vitriolic and exclusive. The rift within the American Jewish community over what constitutes “legitimate” viewpoints and public pronouncements about Israel is deepening, and chasm between the American Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community is widening.

There are many political explanations to account for the growing divide between American and Israeli Jewry. But it increasingly feels like a very personal family fracas that has moved to a more toxic state of betrayal. It’s not uncommon in families for one member to feel betrayed by another. Sometimes, this perceived or real betrayal is the result of being absent in a time of need, or making a decision that one member feels is oblivious to another’s deepest values. When that happens, other members of the family may become polarized around each side, and push each other apart. Their depth of feeling remains, but over time, the pain of betrayal places elemental family love at risk. As separation continues, so does the possibility that love will be superseded by anger and recrimination.

When families experience this kind of situation, they have a choice. They can go it alone, harden their positions, and create a potential, perpetual future of strife. Or, they can do the hard work of meeting face-to-face, have difficult conversations with one another, and relearn their capacity for empathy. Empathy means that despite their real differences, they draw upon that prior love to heal some of the more recent pain. They remember that something greater is at stake that transcends any single negative event. This fundamental love enables each to incorporate a little more of the other’s perspective, thus paving the way for a more mature, authentic relationship.

As someone who spends significant time in Israel and is immersed in the American Jewish community, that’s what it feels like is happening between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Increasingly, American Jews are moving from frustration about Israel toward despair and abandonment. They have lost empathy for their Israeli siblings because of an erosion of democratic principles and values that used to inspire them. In a parallel way, Israelis are pained by the isolation that they feel from their American Jewish siblings who in the past used to speak with more of a unified voice of support. Israelis also notice that their American counterparts don’t show up in the numbers that they used to in times of crisis. Each side is contributing to an empathy gap.

If we can have Jews, Christians, and Muslims at a Seder table, we’re going to have to make that table large enough to have supportive but dissenting voices around our metaphorical pro-Israel table. When it comes to Israel, the political left does not have a monopoly on righteousness, and the political right does not own the truth. The left is often willfully blind to Israel’s external, existential threats (ISIS, Iran) that have nothing to do with Israel’s actions, but Israel’s mere existence. Under no conditions will a Jewish state ever by palatable to these extremist ideologies and regimes. The political right suffers from a parallel tunnel vision, that makes its proponents unwilling to confront the sufferings and indignities of Palestinians under Israeli rule that are within the government’s ability to remove.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is fabricating a future narrative for American political leaders. Non-Jewish and increasingly more Jewish students see Israel exclusively through the lens of a distorted and often intentionally malicious Palestinian narrative. This narrative is only about Israel as the “root cause” of all problems in the Middle East and, increasingly, in Europe. It ignores the constant threats of daily terror attacks on innocent Israeli Jewish civilians and the irretrievable losses that Israeli Jewish families have suffered from many unprovoked wars. And it is a narrative that lacks context that includes the brutality and oppression that women, Christians and homosexuals endure in many countries on or near Israel’s borders. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders. If the doctrinaire BDS narrative that is often designed to inflict them with moral blindness becomes their singular narrative about Israel, the implications for the relationship between the United States and Israel are bleak. Single narrative thinkers become close-minded leaders.

In an essay that Leon Wieseltier (former literary editor of The New Republic) wrote about two years ago, he urged Jewish leaders to shed their myth of a nostalgic, uniform Jewish community. He wrote, “Quarrel has always been a Jewish norm, and controversy a primary instrument for the development of Jewish culture and Jewish religion. But there are those, the heresy hunters and the truancy hunters, the real Jews, the true Jews, the last Jews, who refuse to accept the community as it empirically is, to engage with the cacophony and its causes, and instead they haughtily promulgate definitions of inclusion and exclusion, certifications of authenticity and inauthenticity. Most of their fellow Jews are, for them, for one reason or another, treif. What sort of expression of peoplehood is that?”

If we expect our future opinion and political leaders in America, those who are Jewish and those who are not, to enlarge their understanding of the beauty and necessity of a Jewish state, we’re first going to have to close the empathy gap. That might enable people across a reasonable spectrum of beliefs about contemporary Zionism to re-engage with one another, instead of walking away from the table.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.