When Conversations About Israel Turn Sour


In German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s fable of the porcupines, a group of animals were huddling together to shelter from the cold. Finding that they were pricking each other with their sharp quills, they moved apart, only to feel the cold again. And so on, back and forth, until they found it best to be a little distance from each other – not too close, and not too far away. Yet, notes Schopenhauer, a prickly character himself, “by this arrangement the mutual need for warmth is only very moderately satisfied.” That distance, transposed to human interactions, “is the code of politeness and fine manners, and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance.” In order to avoid each other’s barbs, in other words, we compromise on the intimacy we crave.

When conversations about Israel turn sour, as they did in a public way recently at a program at New York’s 92nd Street Y, it is easy to blame those who are prickly and disagreeable, and to call for “politeness and fine manners.” In this most recent case, a panel discussion on what it means to be pro-Israel in America among the heads of leading Jewish bodies, civility was indeed in limited supply. After a spirited but congenial hour of conversation, the discussion disintegrated, somewhat mystifyingly, into a melodrama of shrieks, whistles and boos from the audience and the departure of one panelist in high dudgeon.

But are better manners the only remedy for such cases? Schopenhauer’s claim, that taking a polite distance from each other hampers our ability to engage in genuinely satisfying human encounters, is worth considering. If we set the bar too high, observing every one of George Washington’s 101 basic rules of civility for example, there may be little energy left for the conversation itself. That could be a problem when some American Jews are already finding it difficult to forge a meaningful relationship with Israel, at least according to the Pew Study.

At the same time, if good manners are the only criteria for engaging in conversation about Israel, we may be selling ourselves short. Engaging in meaningful dialogue may demand much more of us than just being polite – sharing our uncertainties as well as our conclusions, being willing to talk with people whose perspectives may appear to be different from our own, and undertaking the difficult task of seeking answers together.

Jewish history offers a different approach, acknowledging that meaningful dialogue – “controversy for the sake of heaven,” as the Talmud calls it – must necessarily include differences of opinion. Disagreement is not to be avoided, straitjacketed in codes of civility and courteousness, but to be celebrated: “both this and that are the words of the living God,” we are taught. Minority opinions of ancient Talmudic debates are recorded and preserved, both to remind us that there were alternatives to the opinion that was eventually accepted, and so that we can revisit them, learning once more the value of examining different answers to the same question. Disagreement need not be a disagreeable experience.

So, as we try to engage in constructive conversations about Israel, we should be conscious that shuffling politely away from each other in search of greater civility might not always be the best option. Although good manners are certainly important, real conversations about Israel – those which embrace diversity, acknowledge difference, offer the real possibility of disagreement and include a commitment to continue nevertheless – are best undertaken in the warmth we find when we huddle together.

Dr. Jonathan Cummings is the director of Intra-Communal Affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, where he heads The Israel Talks (www.theisraeltalks.org).