The Week of ‘Forbidden Conversations’

This has been the week of Forbidden Conversations. This has been the week of words being said out loud which make others uncomfortable, or which are painful for us to utter. This has been a week of wrestling with identity, with beliefs, and with our loved ones over difficult events and issues. And none of these issues is easy, nor will any of them be solved simply in a black or white manner.

First, last Sunday, we here at CBSRZ had the privilege of welcoming actor and activist Gili Getz, as he performed his one act show, “The Forbidden Conversation.” In it, he reflected powerfully on forbidden conversations related to Israel amongst Jews. He is Israeli-American, raised by fervent Zionists determined for him to be a Sabra, a native Israeli, from the moment he was born.

Gili noted the moment he realized when he had entered into a forbidden conversation with his own father – a moment when Gili, in the midst of his deep love for Israeli, also criticized Israel in such a way that it challenged the very core of what his father believed about Jewish identity and our connection to the land.

His impetus for creating this show was the recognition that American Jews have become so fearful about talking about Israel that we’ve merely stopped talking about Israel. Rather than engage, or argue, or even offend our loved ones in case we disagree, we just don’t talk about Israel. Rabbis have stopped preaching on Israel, so many are afraid to teach about Israel, and so many just don’t even know where to start.

No matter what our individual beliefs were/are, Gili Getz hoped that we would talk about them nonetheless. That we would maintain our connection to each other and to Israel, even if we disagreed on the definition of Zionism, or the current state of Israeli politics, or the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, or the rights of Palestinians in and around the land of Israel.

In any forbidden conversation, we lose the opportunity to find nuance, or a middle-ground. We feel like we must be for or against, and never somewhere in between. We have lost the ability to talk to one another, to care about one another, to disagree with respect – and thus we no longer engage with those one the “other side.”

Last night, CBSRZ hosted another “forbidden conversation” – we tackled questions related to the debate over gun control which is currently taking place in the CT Legislature. Our Social Action Committee chose this topic because it is so current, so raw, and so difficult to discuss. Passions run incredibly deep, and thus, even more than hearing from both sides, we also wanted to model the importance of sitting in the same room, and speaking to each other with respect and patience. At first, we invited Connecticut Against Gun Violence, CAGV, to present their policy recommendations based on the current legislation. Jody Wintsch, who was instrumental in planning this powerful event, explained the goal to CAGV, as well as the idea that we were purposely inviting a group of gun rights supporters to speak as well. Sadly, once CAGV, a well-respected and active group of gun control advocates heard that the CCDL, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which is an NRA-backed state-wide advocacy group, would also be present, the CAGV pulled out of our event.

The conversation was forbidden. The very idea of talking or listening to each other was forbidden.

Luckily, Guilford resident Michael Song agreed to join us. Michael Song is the father of Ethan Song, who was killed accidentally last year by an improperly stored gun at his friend’s house. The Song family is now advocating for “Ethan’s Law,” which strengthens the laws related to safe storage of firearms in homes, especially around minors.

The Forbidden Conversation between gun rights advocates and gun control advocates was actually going to take place, here on this very bimah. Representatives and folks from both sides of the debate were present, and we all agreed on ground-rules for the evening. Essentially, we were going to afford each other dignity and respect, even when we disagreed on the most fundamental level. We knew we weren’t going to convince the other side of anything major, but we could experience what it felt like to return to a time when we could speak civilly with those with whom we disagreed.

Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, there were a number of areas in which both sides found common ground, particularly related to safe storage of firearms. Both sides agreed that being responsible owner of firearms required that they be stored in the most secure manner (while still allowing the guns to be accessed in an emergency, which seemed to be a primary concern for many of the owners).

The two men from the two opposing organizations shook hands many times throughout the night. They even called each other “buddy” during the discussion. Activists from both sides lingered after the evening to speak further in one-on-one conversations (and at some point, I had to kick them out of the building, it was getting so late!).

The forbidden conversation happened…. And we were all the better for it.

Finally, the most complicated forbidden conversation of the week. It didn’t happen here at CBSRZ, but I’m sure many of you have been engaged in discussing it in your own lives.

This is the conversation surrounding the comments made over the past few weeks by Minnesota House Representative, Ilhan Omar.

Three of her comments are most troublesome, and they were summarized by NYTimes Op-Ed Columnist, Bret Stephens:

“Israel has hypnotized the world,” she tweeted in 2012. “May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Last month, she wrote that U.S. support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby.” A few weeks after that, she told an audience in D.C. that “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Confronted with criticism about the remark from her fellow Democrat Nita Lowey, she replied: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

Bret Stephens further explains,

It’s a case study in the ease with which strident criticism of Israel shades into anti-Semitism.

For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel “hypnotizes” the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.

As the criticism of Omar mounts, it becomes that much easier for her to seem like the victim of a smear campaign, rather than the instigator of a smear. The secret of anti-Semitism has always rested, in part, on creating the perception that the anti-Semite is, in fact, the victim of the Jews and their allies. Just which powers-that-be are orchestrating that campaign? Why are they afraid of open debate? And what about all the bigotry on their side?

Ideas once thought of as intellectually uncouth and morally repulsive have suddenly become merely controversial. It’s how anti-Zionism has abruptly become an acceptable point of view in reputable circles. It’s why anti-Semitism is just outside the frame, bidding to get in.

Three Jewish members of congress, and her democratic colleagues, Brad Schneider, Elaine Luria and Josh Gottheimer wrote an op-ed for CNN, which said,

…we were disappointed by the comments of our colleague Congresswoman Ilhan Omar suggesting supporters of Israel “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” The dual loyalty canard is one of the more common and most pernicious attacks used to discredit “the other.” It was deployed in the last century against Catholics like Al Smith and John Kennedy. It’s used today to vilify immigrants, minorities, and people of non-Christian faiths, including both Jews and Muslims.

For Jews in particular, the charge has a long and bloody history that persists to the present day. A 2014 global survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that “the most widely accepted anti-Semitic stereotype worldwide is: ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country/the countries they live in.'”

My friends, anti-Semitism matters. Our history of persecution just because we are Jews matters. And it deserves to be singled out for recognition as a particular form of hate. Not to negate other horrific forms of racism, intolerance, or prejudices, but we must allow ourselves to take time to acknowledge that Jews have been victims to a specific and enduring hatred for a very long time.

And yet, other members of the government have made disturbingly anti-Semitic statements. Other members of the government have let out what we call “dog whistles” to white supremacists, to the KKK, and to neo-Nazi groups.

And none of them has faced the level of vitriol and condemnation which has befallen Rep. Omar.

So, here’s the forbidden conversation part: Criticism of Israel is ok, and it is legal, and it must remain legal. What Rep. Omar did was clearly beyond that, and it included classic themes and tropes of anti-Semitism.

But why has the reaction to HER statements, and not others, been so vastly different?

I propose, as have many others, that it is because she is a young, Muslim woman of color.

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in the NYTimes:

So I think Omar deserves criticism. Criticism, however, is not the right word for what she’s faced. As one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — and the first to wear a hijab — Omar has been subject to a terrifying campaign of racist vilification, including a poster in the rotunda of the West Virginia Capitol linking her to 9/11. She is treated as a dangerous foreign interloper in American politics and the embodiment of anti-Semitism…

Omar said things that are offensive and that she’s the victim of a double standard. She’s been held up for unique opprobrium because, breaking with America’s foreign policy consensus, she empathizes with Palestinians more than Israelis.

My college classmate and author Bill Folman wrote,

Several things can be simultaneously true:
– Ilhan Omar is subjected to an unfair level of criticism because of Islamaphobia.
– Israel is subjected to an unfair level of criticism (by Omar and others) because of anti-Semitism.
– Omar does not believe herself to be anti-Semitic and is probably not trying to offend.
– Some of her past statements have reflected an unconscious anti-Semitism (much like the unconscious racism that exists within us all, living in a racist society) that others have been legitimately offended by.

Whether or not you agree with my friend’s assessment, his point is important – several things can be true at once, and we must take a moment to breathe and to recognize this.

The issue becomes even more painful for those who find aspects of their own identities being thrown into war with one another.

With permission, I share with you the heartfelt words of my childhood friend (I was a madrichah when she was in religious school), who wishes to remain anonymous:

I just sort of can’t stay silent on everything that is happening with Rep. Omar, so here we are.

I’ve thought about this a lot. I am a Black Jewish women, and I can’t leave any of my identities at the door as I see and experience everything that is happening. I contain multitudes.

I stand with Ilhan because I have spent my whole life as a Black Jewish person. I have experienced deep racism in the Jewish community over and over and over again, and yet, here I stand proud as ever to be Jewish. In the face of racism in the Jewish community, people have asked me over and over to be patience, said that change doesn’t come in a day or a week, said that the proverbial arc is long but it bends towards justice. They’ve asked me not to throw out Judaism, and I listened, and I’m still here, personally and professionally.

Similarly, I will not throw out Ilhan. Y’all have heard me say it over and over and over, but I’m rooting for everyone Black. Not just rooting, but holding and loving and reaching for, even when it is tough. So, what I ask is that we see the long journey ahead, and we hold Rep. Omar with the same grace we ask internally. I know in my heart the battle against anti-Semitism is stronger with Rep. Omar in it, and I ask that you remember that change doesn’t come in a day or a week or a month.

I’m asking you to extend her the same grace so many people have asked of me over the years. I can tell you, unequivocally, it is worth it to hold on and stay in community.

This has been a week of forbidden conversations. They are difficult because multiple realities exist and converge and overlap and divide. Does that mean that we, as a society, must divide? Must we tear ourselves apart, fracture permanently, and lose the ability to face the other at the same table.

My friend’s comment has remained with me since she posted it on Facebook earlier in the week. There are many forces in our country right now which would love for us to further divide, to hate each other, to fear each other, and to battle one another with ideas or even with violence.

The “forbidden conversations” require us to resist that pull, and to stay at the table. We may bleed there in front of those who are opposite us, because they need to see our pain. They need to understand why we are hurting, just as we should strive to see what drives them and their ideas.

As she says, “It is worth it to hold on and stay in community.”

Even as we wrestle, I pray that we are able to do so.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, May this be God’s will.

Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. A native of Skokie, Illinois, she received her BA in Psychology from Brandeis University in 1999 and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.
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