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Strange bedfellows for a good cause

In which we are stuck with an unsavory committee co-chair; Responses from Rabbis Idit Lev, Andy Bachman and Shmuly Yanklowitz

This Ethical Jam is about unsavory allies. How far should we reach across the aisle – or across an ideological chasm – to accomplish a noble goal? Here to help us out are Rabbis Idit Lev, Andy Bachman and Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Today’s Jam

I am a longtime member of an organization that works on behalf of children with special needs. The president of the organization recently asked me to co-chair a new campaign aimed at providing better support services for our constituents in local elementary schools.

I believe strongly in the mission of the organization, its strategy for this campaign, and my ability to help lead it. But I am hesitant to take on this new role because the board has chosen as my co-chair a Christian leader from a nearby church who has spoken publicly about his support for divestment from Israel. This is a position I strongly oppose because I feel it is unjust and detrimental to Israel’s well being. What do you recommend I do?

Idit Lev says…

Idit Lev works at Rabbis for Human Rights

This is a true dilemma and raises broader questions: can I work with a person who agrees with me on some issues but not others? What are the “red lines” that I will not cross for the sake of cooperating with other people?

In my work as a lobbyist in the Israeli Knesset (parliament), I often see members of opposing parties cooperating to promote an issue. Most of those cases are similar to the one presented here. Many Knesset members differ on their views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but may agree on other social justice issues and cooperate when they can.

The first question that I ask myself before deciding whether to cooperate with someone with whom I disagrees on a certain issue is what the basis might be for our disagreement. In this scenario – divestment from Israel – what were this person’s motivations? Were they anti-Semitic views? Or did he support divestment because he genuinely thinks it would make real and positive changes in the Middle East?

If he was motivated by anti-Semitism, what is the best way to address this matter? If not, then it might be important to collaborate with him on an issue about which we share more common ground.

As our sages taught us (in Tosefta Yevamot 1,3), peace was possible between the houses of Hillel and Shammai in spite of intractable differences, since the difference of opinions was an honest one about a particular issue. Both houses wanted to do what was right and disagreed about the best course of action. This shows that even if you have conflicting ideas, you can maintain positive relationships.

When I promote an issue in the Knesset, I work with Knesset members that agree with me on the specific issue, but not all issues. I could not have achieved nearly as much as an activist otherwise. In fact, I have learned a lot by working with people who disagree with me on some important issues.

I think you should set your personal “red lines” – the boundaries that you are not willing to cross in forming coalitions. But otherwise, it is important to work with others to promote a mutual goal, and to see if there are productive ways to discuss issues on which you truly disagree.
About Idit Lev

Andy Bachman says…

Andy Bachman is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY

As a proponent of humane policies for children with special needs in public schools, I would co-chair, with pride, the new campaign for the needs of these children. Our obligation as Jews who believe fervently in the power of learning as well as the ethical notion that all humans are made in the Divine Image mitigates strongly in favor of this assignment. As an American, equal access to education is a constitutional right. Case closed.

That my co-chair is a Christian clergyperson who favors divestment from Israel is a personal and political challenge for me, but it nevertheless would not distract from the task at hand, which is caring for children with special needs. If this task force is like many other task forces I’ve had to privilege to experience, there’d be a lot of meetings and plenty of meals. I’d make it a point to be up front with my co-chair and ask for the opportunity to engage deeply in this issue about Israel, sharing my knowledge and perspective on why I think divestment is the wrong strategy. I’d bring to bear my own principled Zionism and a variety of ways he can strengthen the hands of those Israelis who oppose the occupation of Palestinian territory and are working fervently for a two-state solution.

In a world of political sloganeering and growing impatience with the generations long inability to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, there is no alternative other than to engage in a meaningful and thoughtful way with Israel’s detractors, to represent a principled Zionism, and to argue without fail that as tempting as it is to isolate one particular dimension of the conflict (the occupation) in fact contextual discussions of Palestinians’ failures and greater regional instability must be taken in to consideration when approaching this issue.

Politics is about being able to break bread with those we disagree with; otherwise, we’re simply talking to ourselves.
About Andy Bachman

Shmuly Yanklowitz says…

Shmuly Yanklowitz founded Uri L'Tzedek and is the Rabbi of Kehilath Israel

One principle of community organizing is that an opponent on one campaign might be a partner on a different campaign. Rather than cultivating a list of long-term enemies, we should seek to bring close opponents on one issue when we agree on a different issue.

Historically, many presidents worked with an oppositional congress to get things done. FDR worked with southern Democrats to get New Deal legislation passed. President Johnson worked with Republican leaders to make sure that enough votes were there to pass the major Great Society bills (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare). It is precisely when you work in a coalition that you get something done, even if you disagree on other issues. The present situation in Congress, in which the two sides cannot get anything done together, illustrates how destructive it is to require alignment on all issues in order to collaborate on some issues.

In the Talmud, I might say (perhaps anachronistically) that the rabbis are “post-ideological.” They generally do not operate in ideological camps but address each argument based upon its own merits.

Special needs work is so incredibly important and provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase interfaith collaboration. Advocating divestment from Israel is, in my view, clearly a moral misjudgment, but this Christian leader may be a valid partner on other crucial issues such as the one before you. If you feel that the Christian leader is anti-Semitic, then I think refusing to work with him makes sense. There do have to be some boundaries. But if you believe he is merely misinformed or making an ideological error with respect to Israel, then I think creating a partnership with him is acceptable.
About Shmuly Yanklowitz

Now, what do YOU say?

While each of our panelists has spoken in different ways about the issue, they’ve all counseled our perplexed activist to get over any discomfort with the co-chair for the sake of a good cause. What about you? When it comes to “strange bedfellows,” who is too strange for you to work with, even for something you care about? Add a comment!

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like the Ethical Jam to address, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)