Emily Kaiman

Hillel, Shammai and J Street

We must avoid the prevailing impulse to exaggerate and distort and learn to disagree without fracturing our community
'Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud' (A Talmudic Dispute) 19th century Oil painting by Carl Schleicher (PD-Dorotheum/Wikimedia Commons)
'Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud' (A Talmudic Dispute) 19th century Oil painting by Carl Schleicher (PD-Dorotheum/Wikimedia Commons)

The Mishna teaches, “When a human stamps a coin, every coin comes out the same way, but when God made human beings in God’s image, each human being is a unique reflection of God.” God made humans the way God made us, “for the sake of peace.”

In our uniqueness, we naturally come to different conclusions about how to achieve collective goals. Debate is ingrained in our Jewish DNA. We have a tradition built around multiple perspectives. The houses of Hillel and Shammai agreed on almost nothing. They ruled on cases of halacha in completely opposite ways. And yet, they still ate together and created a community together. Tensions around how we come to collective goals can be difficult, but also productive if we debate our differences substantively.

Unfortunately, our polarized society has created incentives to exaggerate and distort substantive differences into ideological wedges. In my own work with J Street, I encounter false ideas about my organization, and by proxy, those of us who work to achieve our mission. It was just last week that the latest attack, filled with distorted facts and misinformation, came from a rabbi within my own beloved Atlanta Jewish community.

So let me be clear: J Street is a pro-Israel organization. J Street first and foremost believes that the Jewish people have a right to a safe and secure national home in the State of Israel.

We support full US security aid for Israel, including Iron Dome. We believe this aid should be used to address Israel’s very real security needs – and should have guardrails in place to ensure that it is not used to demolish schools, expand settlements or carry out other policies that jeopardize Israel’s future and undermine our shared interests and values. That position in support of transparency and commonsense aid use restrictions is one we share with 68% of Jewish Americans.

J Street stands for a strong US-Israel relationship built on the values we hold both as Americans and as Jews – the values of tzedek (pursuit of justice), shalom (peace), caring for the vulnerable among us, along with the values of democracy and equality.

We also know that the significant changes being pushed through by the farthest right-wing government in Israel’s history are a grave threat to the country’s democratic future. And it’s not just J Street that believes this. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in the streets for months. J Street has proudly stood with these protesters both in Israel and all across the US, calling on the government of Israel to hold fast to its Declaration of Independence, a document that envisions a Jewish, democratic homeland.

Just recently, it was Member of Knesset Rabbi Gilad Kariv who invited J Street’s Yuval Peretz to come and address the Knesset. She beautifully articulated the values that we and the majority of American Jews hold, sharing our concerns about the judicial overhaul and moves towards de facto annexation of the West Bank. These moves undermine Israel’s long-term security and stability, and MK Kariv knows that J Street is here to stand with the Israeli people fighting for the soul of their country.

There have always been multiple strands of Zionism. The Jewish people have never agreed on one definition. There were Labor Zionists, Liberal Zionists, Green Zionists, Religious Zionists, and more. They all stood for the creation of the State of Israel, a homeland for the Jewish people, and they disagreed about the character of that State. But while they disagreed about the nature of Zionism, they did not call each other anti-Zionists.

My hope as we enter this season of Teshuva where we pause to reflect, is that we all take time to listen to one another just a little more. It’s good and healthy to consider differing perspectives. Our tradition thrives on real, substantive debate. But let us have this debate in good faith. Let us call out the real policy disagreements with respect and honesty, like the tradition of Hillel and Shammai.

In a time when many American Jews are struggling to identify with Israel and the current trajectory the Israeli government is pursuing, let us not alienate those of us who remain committed to our Jewish homeland and the vision prescribed in the Declaration of Independence.

I am a proud Zionist. I’m married to a rabbi who is a proud Zionist. We are raising our children to know and love Israel. I am proud to have the opportunity to devote my time and energy to supporting the State of Israel through J Street. We live in a society that seeks to divide rather than unite. We may have our differences, but we likely have much more in common.

About the Author
Emily Kaiman, MAEd, is the Deputy Director of Jewish Communal Engagement at J Street.