Can we talk? Seriously, can we?

Can we talk? Seriously, can we?

The liberal pundit Peter Beinart has an idea for building support for the two-state solution among hawkish American Jews who visit Israel. “If it became the norm to spend a day with Palestinians living generations under military occupation, and seeing what it’s like to live under military law, the political [polarization] would crumble,” said Beinart, speaking at Sunday’s all-day conference for pro-Israel liberals sponsored by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the U.S.-based New Israel Fund. “It’s a shattering experience.”

Great idea, I thought, as I sat in the crowded ballroom at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. Setting up visits between Jews and Palestinians might be a nice easy warmup for the hard part: creating dialogue between the Jewish Left and Jewish Right. After attending the conference, and following the reaction to it in the Jewish press and on social media, I found myself despairing for the state of the Israel “debate,” which is less a debate than two distinct monologues taking place in parallel universes.

The “HaaretzQ” conference (the “Q” stands for “questions”) featured a lineup of advocates for a two-state solution, based on the idea that Israel cannot remain a Jewish democracy so long as it controls the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Speakers included Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin; Tzipi Livni, of Israel’s opposition Zionist Union party; U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power; and a who’s who of representatives of various left-leaning organizations, including J Street, T’ruah, B’Tselem, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. It felt like a nominating convention for an as-yet-to-be-named political party, and you could almost sense the relief of those in the room at being able to speak in ways that would get them shouted down or shunned at many American synagogues.

And if you think I am being hard on the Right, just read the reactions of those on the outside. Right-wing newspapers here and in Israel focused on the fact that Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd front man who supports the cultural boycott of Israel, was in the audience; that Rivlin dared to speak at a convention of American Jews that included representatives of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that likes to lecture overseas audiences on the “immorality” of the Israeli army; and that Saeb Erekat, the PLO secretary general, asked that the Israeli flag be removed from the podium before his speech.

That last “controversy” represented to me the hopelessness of the current moment, in which small symbolic gestures are allowed to undermine the serious business of making peace. Erekat gave an extremely well-received speech in which he endorsed the two-state solution, rejected the boycott of Israel, and blasted the notion of a “binational” state. Yet headlines about the conference focused on Erekat’s request that he not speak in front of an Israeli flag that had been specifically placed on stage at the request of Rivlin. Clearly, Rivlin understood the flag as a symbol of his office and the state he was representing. This was New York, not Tel Aviv. So why do we pretend to be “shocked, shocked” that Erekat would not want to deliver his remarks in front of a flag of a country he does not represent?

As for Breaking the Silence, both Rivlin and Livni criticized the group in their remarks, earning scattered hisses. To me, that is exactly how dialogue and conversation are supposed to work. One side defends the inclusion of a group that even many left-wing Israelis feel crosses the line, and other speakers criticize them — and it’s all happening in the same room. Instead, we’ve grown accustomed to exclusion and censorship, blocking groups from speaking in our various Jewish institutions, blackballing organizations and speakers because they have the “wrong” friends. 

Not that Haaretz or NIF offered the ideal model of inclusion and dialogue. My friend J.J. Goldberg pointed out in the Forward that the day’s speakers were more likely to frame the conflict in terms of “Palestinian rights and interests” than in terms of the “security challenges and threats facing Israel internally and externally.” That’s the kind of imbalance, Israeli author Ari Shavit suggested in his remarks, that has led the Israeli Left to be “perceived as detached from reality.” 

But don’t get the impression that HaaretzQ was a gathering of the arrogant, naive, or lunatic fringe. Most of the people I recognized in the audience were from mainstream synagogues and uncontroversial left-of-center groups. They are the sorts of people who give to federation, travel to Israel frequently, and care deeply about its future. Their biggest worry, however, is that the future is cloudy unless Israel finds a way to separate itself from the Palestinians. 

They also worry about the state of Jewish dialogue. Many of them were inspired by Rivlin, who even as he acknowledged that he rarely agrees with the left-wing Haaretz, admitted that he has read it for 70 years and saluted the democratic culture of free speech that it represents. “The free market of ideas is a holy principle,” declared Israel’s president.

And the headline that day in Israel Hayom, Israel’s free right-wing newspaper? “Rivlin says he never agrees with Haaretz.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author.

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