Intrafaith Dialogue for Jews: Healing the Divisions Created by History and Politics

I spent three days at the Yemenite Conference organized in conjunction with the American Sephardi Federation. The Conference was focused on Jewish Muslim relations in Yemen, but of course touched on many other issues – the Yemenite experience of aliya, various elements of culture and how they persisted or transformed after immigration, historical roots of the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Approximately 70 Yemenite performers flew in from Israel, including a choir, a dance troupe, and the famous Zion Golan. They participated in the Israel Day parade, greatly enlivening the atmosphere with their colorful costumes, singing and dancing all the way down the 27 blocks of the parade, and even shocking and awing the Neturei Karta and Palestinian protesters, one of whom even started smiling and singing along.  The Conference attracted a number of famed scholars, as well as ASF’s young leadership board. The Opening Night concert was sold out to the point that there was no room to move, and the delicious Yemenite food did not hurt at all.

However, as I went through the three days enjoy the high spirited atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the fascinating lectures I could not help but wonder: “Why weren’t more Jews from other communities interested in participating?” For many Sephardic communities, in particular, the past is the past – they were thrown out of their lands and have no wish to recall their bitter experiences. For Moroccon Jews, that’s much more of a mixed bag – some return to Morocco every year in good spirits, while others recall with apprehension waves of street anti-Semitism which had threatened them as young children. Today, however, many are reluctant to remember their experiences, much less pass them on to the next generation. Forgetting history, pretending that it has not happened at all, will not heal the wounds, bring justice, or in any way be helpful for the challenges brought about by the hatred and injustices against Jewish communities will continue to linger and swelter if left unaddressed. One can avoid traveling to various parts of the world, even doing business there, but ultimately self-isolation is not a workable long-term strategy.

However, turning a blind eye to the Sephardic past by the people who have suffered the most from it is only part of the problem. The overwhelming majority of the Ashkenazi communities in the United States, appears to be at least as disinterested and indifferent, nor have much knowledge about the different Sephardic cultures. Their intellectual curiosity is not aroused by the unknown, but rather, dismissiveness prevails. Although there has been much progress in overcoming these social divisions in Israel, prejudices are still in place among the self-styled intellectual “elites”, such as the publisher of Ha’aretz who told one woman that his ancestors were pioneers in the land of Israel while hers were still climbing trees in North Africa.

Many of these separations and divisions were imposed and enforced by history, as Jews, once a single community, were forced to disperse and develop their own cultures in the places where they settled. Despite common experiences in the sense of religious Jewish traditions, even the unassimilated Jews adopted and adapted mindsets and cultural practices of local communities. The Sephardic experience involving trade and commerce was more open towards intermingling with other nations and religions; Eastern European and other Ashkenazi Jews were often forced into isolation in ghetto-like shtetls. THey often had only two choices: convert or assimilate and forget their own traditions or live in poverty and separation from the rest of their countries. Differences in cultures, worldviews, and responses to the challenges of preserving one’s identity in a rapidly globalized word are, therefore, understandable.

The acrimony of the divisions and the lack of mutual interest and respect, however, is not – and makes the Jewish community easy to exploit by hucksters, demagogues, and manipulators of all stripes. I find it interesting that in the age of intersectionality, many of the younger Jews are more interested in interacting with practically any other group on the face of the planet other than other Jews of a different background, religious tradition, or political views. I see the Balkinization of Jewish communities everywhere – Israeli and American Jews, both across the ocean, and in the US seem to reside in their own bubbles, with very different understanding of Jewish identities, interacting mostly at occasional social events in New York.

Jewish groups of various degrees of religious observance may mix and mingle through kiruv groups or at weddings, but overall, mutual stereotypes and differences in perspectives on engagement with the world keep them more apart than together. The political divisions between many of the organized Reform Jews and the conservative leaning and more traditional Jews provide fodder for endless discussion, and no real path forward for finding common ground even on a basic human level. Few if any intersectionalist Jews on college campuses are likely to lend support to their ardently Zionist counterparts in the event of problems or confrontations.

Many, in fact, are as likely to be part of the problem as part of an attempt at a solution or reasonable discussion. Where emotional narratives begin, rational discourse ends. Neither reasoned fact-based debates, nor personal experience centered dialogues have resolved these differences,, nor brought these Jews closer together. The assortment of available Birthright trips help perpetuate the assorted bubbles rather than break down barriers. Someone already right leaning will likely go on a right leaning Birthright trip with the like minded. These circles may even on occasion interact at the alumni events, but overall are unlikely to spend much time together getting to know diverse perspectives and experience. And the more one is proud of one’s dedication to diversity, the more that person is likely to find oneself surrounded by like minded coastal liberal multiculturalists. Few will go out of their way to find and befriend people with starkly different backgrounds and views, or at least engage in peaceful discussions aimed at learning and informing one’s views, rather than arguing or resolving any particular conflicts.

So why exactly is there so little intrafaith dialogue in the Jewish community? Why is it while many have called on the Muslim communities to engage internally and with each other with regards to resolving faith based issues and any conflicts between customs and modernity, the Jewish communities see no value in doing the same thing? Granted the extent of the differences in the Jewish world is not quite so wide, given that there is no Jewish extremist movement calling for an eradication of Jewish apostates or non-conformists with particular othodoxies. The debates, however, on the occasion that they happen are at least as passionate.

Furthermore, some would argue that intrafaith dialogue is not really possible if the parties do not view each other as having the legitimacy to represent the faith to begin with, much less the learning or the attitude to make any such discussion meaningful. Then again, interfaith dialogue is rarely about textual analysis and either at best focuses on finding common ground with respect to well known common issues, or attacks decontextualized controversies, or deteriorates into a mind-numbing discussion related to current events. Rarely will an intrafaith group discussion among Jews resemble a gathering of the Sanhedrin. However, there are other reasons to look internally.

Issues that plague the Jewish world cannot be resolved through endless lectures about the dangers of assimilation (tell that to someone already engaged or married to a person from a different faith, who is unlikely to convert), traditional hasbara, or the cherry tomato stories which will not make an iota of a difference to Jewish human rights activists hoodwinked by BDS or the likes of the New Israel Fund or IfNotNow. None of it will address the process of separation and dehumanization which is the one thing all of these Jewish communities that are not already involved in kiruv do have in common – the simple fact that many groups will call their different-minded coreligionists “traitors”, “Nazis”, or otherwise deny their Jewish identity before they admit that even if the understanding of what Jewish is or what it means to be Jewish or what it should mean or what’s ultimately good for the Jews may be vastly different, it’s hard to deny that someone may in fact hold a disagreeable paradigm of any of the above and yet consider himself no less Jewish than the person making that accusation.

The diversity of thought within the Jewish nation is both a boon and an obstacle. Like any other nation, Jews are not a monolith, nor should anyone expect them to be. However, when internal divisions lead to hostility and inability to communicate even about issues central to the well being of the community, when religion and politics merge into one, when there is no system of values to guide the decisionmaking process for any individual or institution, and when much of the community ethos is based on “go along to get along” rather than on close examination of the desired result and the process, we end up in a very bad place.

And I have to say that we are pretty much getting to that place in the US, with the level of polarization that plays directly into the hands of the forces that seek to destroy or to use us for some nefarious goals. That’s not to say, that Jews excited about interacting with other faiths and cultures should abandon all such efforts and spend all their free time navelgazing. We have entirely too much of that already on the extreme of the spectrum. But a happy medium where inclusivity refers to one’s own community as much as to like minded thinkers from various background is a good place to start mending the wounds created by a long history of expulsions, dispersions, and persecutions.

Substituting real, raw conversations for faux tokenist inclusivity whether over Shabbat dinners, acts of kindness everyone can agree on, or just a walk in the park is something that does not require too much effort, time investment, or imagination. We do that already, all the time, with everybody. Yet there is so much push about organizations dedicated to all sorts of outreach to other communities, and very little towards finding common ground with those who are the closest to us and farthest away – fellow members of the Tribe. I get it – it hurts the most when people who should be closest to you are not only on the same page as you are, they seem to be not even on the same planet.  Indeed, it is tempting not to waste time on pointless arguments with people who apparently lack any basic principles, foundations of critical thinking, a heart or a brain, or perhaps both and to focus on the people who are reachable. But then it becomes not really about true diversity or saving your community from assimilation or even developing a responsive course of action – but about satisfying your own ego in a quest for easy feel good action.

I have a challenge for all my readers:

Find five individuals who identify themselves as Jews (we are not talking about getting married or making aliya here; leave the halachic discussions at the door for now), who have different backgrounds, levels of religious observance, culture, political views, or other identity-issues from yourself that you would not normally be caught dead with in the same room.  Have a conversation. Don’t lecture, just ask questions. See what you can learn. And if you want to, please feel free to comment about what you noticed about these interactions, or write some articles yourselves!,

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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