Martin Raffel

Restoring Community Cohesion and Bipartisanship

Following is an excerpt of the speech that I gave to the Dallas Federation on November 20, 2015 on healing the Jewish community’s wounds following the bitter debate surrounding the Iran nuclear deal:

You all know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. While the Iran deal is finally behind us — Congressional approval, not the implementation — I believe that we, as a cohesive community bonded in our love of and support for Israel, have fallen. Rather than encouraging inclusivity and striving for consensus, too often we accentuate our differences and demonize those with whom we disagree. Some have shown zero tolerance for dissenting viewpoints.  Too often we fail to inject a sense of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) in our gatherings and communications. We have allowed political partisanship to invade our relationship with the Jewish State.  In the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again. But I believe we can put our communal cohesion and bipartisanship back together, but it requires four main ingredients.

The first is knowledge. If you want to be taken seriously in Israel discourse you really have to know stuff. I was amazed by how many people took firm positions for or against the Iran deal last summer, but actually had very little understanding of what it entailed. Hardly anybody took the time to read it cover to cover.  We are not all going to be Middle East scholars, but it is vital to be informed at least on the basics. As the saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.  Too often there is a tendency to spread misinformation, and the Internet certainly makes this form of mischief easy to achieve.

We also benefit from solid analysis or interpretation. Here, too many of us only follow people and organizations with which we agree.  But to be knowledgeable also means to challenge ourselves with contrary points of view.  It is natural to want to receive information from those organizations you support. But I believe it’s important for AIPAC supporters to read analyses from J Street and vice versa. Those who follow Bret Stephens ought to take the time to read Peter Beinart, and vice versa.

We have a core concept in Judaism reflected in the saying “these and these are the words of the living God.” This famous phrase spoken by God in the Babylonian Talmud is in response to an argument between the followers of Hillel and Shamai. Multiple and divergent opinions, we are taught, can reflect holiness, righteousness and insight.

The second ingredient is humility. Even if we are well informed, these are hard judgment calls. On the Iran deal, who can say with utmost certainty whether it will leave Israel and the United States more or less secure than the absence of an agreement?  This is a question that in all likelihood we will only have an answer to in 10 years, probably longer. And even then we won’t know for sure because the path of no deal will remain an unknown.   I am always amazed by people who seem one hundred percent sure one way or the other. And we experienced wildly inappropriate hyperbole. Those who opposed the deal too often were accused of being “warmongers” and those in favor of it as “appeasers.”

The same is true with the Palestinian issue. There are those who argue Israel is doomed if it doesn’t get out of the West Bank quickly, while others argue that withdrawal would be national suicide.  I like the formulation of my friend Yossi Klein Halevi who says he fears creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank as an existential threat to Israel, and he equally fears the failure to create a Palestinian state as an existential threat.  The noted Israeli academic Asher Susser refers to “current” security — which requires immediate measures to deal with the violence emanating from East Jerusalem and the West Bank — and “basic” security that will only be achieved when Israel separates from the millions of Palestinians living in those areas.   How does Israel grapple with this dichotomy? There are no simple answers.

I referred to the Talmudic passage about the houses of Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud chooses Hillel’s halacha or law over Shammai’s, not because the decisions were better, but because the authorities of Hillel’s school were “kindly and modest and studied both their rulings and those of Shammai’s.” This teaches that he who humbles himself is raised up by the holy one.

The third ingredient is courage. It is easy to take on the opposition. It is harder to confront those with whom we basically agree – people in our own political camp — who may be straying into extreme positions or hurtful attacks against the other side that tear at the cloth of communal civility. The moderate, responsible political right should be challenging the far right; and the moderate, responsible left should be challenging the far left.  We need a strong center-right/ center-left coalition that may not agree on all issues, but can agree on the need to maintain the civility of our discourse and the desirability of reaching consensus positions, which are so necessary when communicating with decision-makers and opinion-molders.

The fourth ingredient is leadership. Those in the political center who value civil, reasoned debate and community unity often find it easier and more comfortable to sit on the sidelines while the extremes do battle.  But this is a huge mistake. These centrist entities charged with the responsibility of building and bringing the community together, like Federation, should be hyper-active now.  If they are not, the vacuum will be filled with less responsible actors.

The great Rabbi Hillel about whom I spoke before beseeches us to Ohev Shalom and Rodef Shalom to love peace within the house of Israel/ Shalom Bayit and to actively pursue it day in and day out.

If we diligently heed Hillel’s sage advice, then I believe we will fulfill our role as Or La’goyim, a light unto the nations.






About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.