The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta tried to strengthen and unify the community Tuesday, May 22, through a special dialogue about Israel after the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem and deadly violence on the Gaza border exposed fractures in Jewish Atlanta the week before.
“Today is about building community, about understanding the diversity within our community and how different people see something that we should get an understanding of,” Federation CEO and President Eric Robbins said. “We have different experiences and different ways that we see different things. But we all love Israel, and we all love this community.”
Itai Tsur, the vice president of the Atlanta Jewish Foundation, moderated the discussion, “How Jewish Atlanta Talks (and Listens) About Israel.”
The panel consisted of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Be’chol Lashon’s rabbi in residence; Shari Dollinger, co-executive director of Christians United for Israel; Rabbi Ilan Feldman, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Jacob; Rabbi Bradley Levenberg, an associate rabbi at Temple Sinai; Dov Wilker, the regional director of American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter; and McKenzie Wren, the president of Congregation Bet Haverim.
The discussion included the embassy move but largely avoided the debate over the blame for dozens of Palestinian deaths amid border protests, rioting and efforts to infiltrate Israel from Gaza.
The group focused on active listening, a practice that Rabbi Feldman said is the mark of a spiritually mature person. Listening to understand is essential during dialogue about controversies such as Israel, and Rabbi Feldman said many, himself included, fall short.
“We are all in a culture, in a society, that has lost the ability to talk to each other about anything, forget about talking about Israel,” Rabbi Feldman said. “We listen to cable stations that tell us what we want to hear. We read columns that reinforce what we want to believe. And we filter out any voices that we disagree with, and that doesn’t really make us effective. If we actually have a concern or a passion for something, we need to know what other people are saying, and we need them to know that we know what they’re saying.”
Acknowledging that there are differences in opinion about Israel is one of the first steps toward building bridges in the Atlanta Jewish community, Rabbi Abusch-Magder said.
She said Jews of color often are left out of the conversation about Israel and Judaism, which is part of the larger conversation because Israel itself is ethnically diverse. “When it comes to Jews of color, we assume we know their politics and beliefs on Israel. There’s a lot we’re missing out on because we’re not as inclusive as we need to be.”
Wilker agreed. He said one issue with Israel is that non-Jews usually think of Jews as white, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“How non-Jews tend to understand Israel is something we’re challenged by because most non-Jews see us as white,” he said.
Perception vs. reality contributes to the confusion about Jerusalem being recognized as the capital of Israel, Wilker said, adding that opposition to the embassy move reflects who made the decision.
“If we disagree with our leader, we’re more inclined to disagree with his policies,” Wilker said. “It’s about striking a balance between not supporting Donald Trump but supporting the policy that made Jerusalem the capital.”
Rabbi Levenberg said that the issue goes beyond politics and that making Israel a political issue is “problematic and dangerous.”
He disagreed that opposition to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the embassy move is solely driven by the media or by anger at Trump. Instead, he said, the criticism stems from a set of homogeneous beliefs that are identified as Jewish.
“For me, the challenge is what comes after the phrase ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.’ Is it only one day, at the inclusion of, forever and Palestinians?” Rabbi Levenberg said. “We are being forced to identify with a monolithic pattern, and we don’t deserve that.”
When certain thought leaders spout only left-wing or right-wing propaganda, Rabbi Feldman said, opinions form based on political viewpoints, and issues often are misconstrued.
He said he tries to avoid Fox News, CNN and The New York Times.
“They are not designed for thoughtful people,” Rabbi Feldman said. “My thought leaders died about 3,000 years ago. What I think about is what the G-d who gave us the land wants us to do with it. I’m careful about forming big positions because I’m an eyeblink in Jewish history.”