Respect and Learning Central to Understanding Challenges in Israel

by Micah Friedman, 2013-2014 NFTY Religious and Cultural Vice President (@NFTYPresident, https://www.facebook.com/NFTYPresident)

Israel is a hot-button issue. In the past year, and particularly in the past few weeks since Fatah and Hamas have unified, controversy regarding the proper road to peace has grown. As new Israel advocacy groups, such as J Street and Stand With Us, have grown so has the willingness of some Jews to dismiss and reject the perspectives of others. The recent decision of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject J Street’s appeal for membership demonstrates an increasing divide between various segments of the Jewish population.  As NFTY’s North American Religious and Cultural Vice-President (RCVP), I believe that the decision of the Conference to exclude J Street is outrageous and contradicts their claims that the Conference is a place where “diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect.”

A few weeks ago, Hannah Silverfine, a NFTY alumni and active member of J Street U, wrote an Op-Ed about her experience with NFTY and Israel education. I want to thank Hannah for opening up the conversation. She challenges NFTY not to avoid controversial topics concerning Israel. Over the course of this past year, my board has realized that NFTY needs to improve our education about Israel and make our support for the state of Israel, and a path toward peace, more visible. As Hannah describes in her post, some leaders of NFTY tend to avoid focusing on topics about which they feel inadequately informed and may lead to conflict between members.  I have often seen that some NFTYites subscribe to the misconception that they must be a world class expert on Israel in order to teach others about Israel. In this upcoming year, NFTY is making improving our education about Israel a priority. This starts with emphasizing Israel in our Regional Leadership training event Mechina this June.  Throughout the year, my successor, Max Spivak, has also committed to raising the level of discourse and action around peace in Israel.

Our dedication to Israel is one of NFTY’s core values. In fact, one of our Thirteen Principles is “Medinat Yisrael – The centrality of the State of Israel to the strength and survival of the Jewish People.” Israel is of fundamental importance to NFTY and to NFTYites and we are working to strengthen our relationships with other Reform Zionist organizations. NFTY is the youth branch of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America and we are working closely with them to understand and participate in the international World Zionist Organization’s Congressional elections next year. We are also a snif of Netzer Olami (Noar Tzioni Reformi), the international Reform Zionist Youth movement. We are lucky to be able to partner with the amazing Shlichim (Israeli emissaries working with URJ and NFTY) who serve our movement here in the US and Canada.

Hannah also urged NFTY to make a statement of support for a two-state solution like the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Rabbi Rick Jacobs. There is no question that NFTY is absolutely part of the URJ’s support for the peaceful two-state solution in Israel. NFTY is a youth movement committed to educating our fellow Reform teens and to build lasting Jewish identity. We want to do more than just make a statement. We want to share and celebrate our focus on education, so that NFTYites feel that they are informed and have been given a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the situation and are confident enough to make their own decisions about where they stand.

NFTY is committed to being a movement in which respectful, educated discourse guides regular substantial conversations about Israel, a place where no one is slandered as anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist or anti-Israel for expressing a different perspective. This openness is not always easy to achieve when there are differing opinions. As we discuss our perspectives on this difficult topic, it is important that we remember the Talmudic lesson of Eruvin 13b. In response to a debate between the school of Hillel and that of Shamai, two great Rabbinic leaders, we are reminded that “elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim — These and these are the words of the Living God.” Both of the rabbinic perspectives are the words of God, even if they disagree.  As an outgoing leader of NFTY, I want to charge my successors, and all of NFTY’s upcoming leaders to do two very important things to deepen our engagement with Israel and her peace process – NFTY must be a home for respectful discourse and learning, and we should always work toward thoughtfully articulating our support for those making the world a better place.

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