How to Start That Difficult Conversation


Difficult conversation on Israel/Palestine between Jews and Christians

Credit: Creative Commons/ Kathleen Tyler Conklin

I want to talk about difficult conversations. Conversations that could put decades of valuable Christian/Jewish interfaith dialogue in jeopardy. It’s risky I know, but I think the stakes have become too high to shy away from it any longer.
Jewish communities receive lessons in Israel advocacy from our leadership, who seem to think the solution to Israel’s growing isolation can be resolved with nothing more than better presentation skills. Meanwhile, Christian communities are morally paralyzed by fear of causing offense to a people they spent so many centuries persecuting.
But it’s time to stop the Jewish moral denial and the Christian moral paralysis. With so much ethical common ground, why not both stand on it for a change and see what happens?
And who knows, through challenging the current no-go-area consensus on Israel, it could take us all to somewhere more dynamic, truthful and powerful in interfaith relations.
But with all that Israel advocacy training taking place in our synagogues, I feel like my Christian friends need some insider guidance on how to get this conversation going.
So what follows is the Micah’s Paradigm Shift Online Guide to Starting that Difficult Conversation on Israel with your Jewish neighbors, friends, colleagues, and local communities.
Feel free to adapt the following to your local circumstances and understanding.

Stage one: Bridge building

This is where you begin, setting out all that you can agree on. You should create some good will and calm nerves before getting to the more tricky part of the conversation.

The Jewish connection to The Holy Land through its scripture, history and religious traditions is strong and without question.
The foundation that Judaism has given to the development of Christianity and the sacredness of Jewish scripture in Christian teaching cannot and should not be denied.
Christian culpability in Jewish suffering over many centuries has had catastrophic consequences and in recent decades has led to a fundamental reassessment of Christian teaching and theology.
This turnaround in Christian understanding explains why we are so hesitant and reluctant to criticize the actions of Israel.
We can see how important the modern State of a Israel has become in Jewish self-understanding and communal identity.
We understand the very real Jewish fears around the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and the physical attacks are real and frightening.
We must work together to challenge racism and discrimination wherever it appears….that must be the lasting lesson of the Holocaust.
In Israel and Palestine both sides also deserve to live in peace and security.
Terrorism is not the answer although its causes must be understood without being condoned.
There is a long and complicated history to the conflict that stretches back more than 100 years. The narratives of both sides need to be learnt and understood and integrated into an agreed understanding of history.
After such a tragic relationship over thousands of years, Christians cannot allow new divisions to arise to push Christianity and Judaism apart.
But the situation in Israel/Palestine must be discussed openly and without inhibitions on either side. A mature dialogue is called for. We have a shared ethical tradition to uphold. This is a moment of truth for both sides.

At this point you should feel like things are going pretty swimmingly. Lots of nodding of heads and relief among the Jewish contingent that you are not out to convert them. Time to pour out the tea and break open the digestives.
But what comes next will be a lot more difficult.

Stage two: The objections

Now you need to be ready for some strong objections and challenges. And this is where some robustness and resilience will come in very handy.
Expect a version of the following to be thrown at you. This is where the bridge you have just constructed is in danger of getting demolished.

We thank you for all of the points you have made and agree entirely.
Thank you for recognizing our 5,000 year unbroken connection to the land of Israel.
After so many decades of understanding and reconciliation we do not want to see that good work undermined. We want to share with you and explain our religious customs and practices. As people of faith we have much in common.
You must understand though that Israel’s safety and security is central to our concerns. Many of us have relatives there, many of us visit often. Some in our community have relatives who found Israel their only safe haven after the Holocaust.
In our weekly Sabbath service we pray both for Her Majesty the Queen, and her government, and also for the well-being of the State of Israel. When we hear of atrocities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we mourn for the victims, they are our brothers and sisters.
Believe us, we want peace as much as you do. But if you don’t live there it is hard for you to understand. We all see on the news what a difficult neighborhood the Middle East can be.
And we must ask you, ‘Why are you picking on Israel?’ Why not criticize countries like Syria or North Korea where they treat their people with contempt and barbarity. Why aren’t you criticizing Hamas who wants to wipe Israel off the map and murder all of its Jews – haven’t you read their charter! Why aren’t you condemning the Islamic State and Boko Haram? Surely they deserve your wrath more than Israel does.
Israel treats women with respect and complete equality, and you can live an openly gay life without fear. How many Middle East countries can say that?
Why are you attempting to delegitimize the existence of the only Jewish state in the world? There are twenty Arab States by the way. We only have the one place that we can truly call home.
You are forgetting that it takes ‘two to tango’ and there is no partner for peace on their side. Until they renounce terrorism how can we trust them? You must have seen the stabbings and car driver murders of the last few weeks? This is what Israel is up against every day.
And we are utterly dismayed that you think to boycott Jews. Have you really forgotten the Holocaust so quickly? The Nazis started with boycotts too. And we all know where it ended.
You may mean well, but you really don’t understand and your naivety fills us with horror.
You may be not be anti-Semitic, but your views have plenty of supporters who clearly are. By talking about Israel in the way that you do, you allow others the space to promote their anti-Semitism.
Your great teacher once said: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ That would seem like very wise words for the Church to heed, especially when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people.
By all means, have another biscuit! You’re looking slightly pale.

You may have to pick yourself up off the floor at this point. We have reached the low point in the difficult conversation. However, if you’ve made good use of these notes you will be more than ready with a response.

Stage three: The rebuttal

This is where you remember why you became enraged and passionate about the situation in Israel/Palestine in the first place. It’s also the moment when you risk all of that interfaith work that’s gone on in the recent past. But don’t worry, just be determined to take things onto a whole new level of relationship.
Off you go with something like the following.

We hear what you are saying and we understand your concerns. We are grateful for your frankness in expressing your position. It’s important for us to hear you say it, face to face.
And now we must ask that you listen to us too, so that we can begin an honest dialogue.
We have questions to put to you as well.
You are right, you need to go there to understand what is happening. You need to travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories as some of us have done. You need to see what an occupation looks like close up, each day of the week, for men, women and children. What does it mean to have your land confiscated, building permits denied, water supplies restricted, access to your farm land taken away, your crops burnt, your olive trees destroyed.
These things have nothing to do with Israeli security and safety.
They are the reality of occupation and colonization of somebody else’s land. And this has been happening for more than fifty years in a place that both Christians and Jews consider Holy and where we too have brothers and sisters suffering and dying because of this conflict.
As Christians how could we possibly not be concerned? As British/American Christians, with our country’s long political involvement in the region, we feel doubly responsible and have even greater reason to care about the land and all of its people.
Yes, there is an unbroken connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel stretching back across millennia. But are you really using your scripture, history and festival celebrations to justify a Jewish domination of the land that places Jewish rights above all others that have lived peacefully there for many centuries? Isn’t that the kind of religious fundamentalism that all of us want to guard against?
You know that Israel has complete jurisdiction over sixty percent of the West Bank and operates a different legal apparatus for Palestinians than it does for Jews. At the very least, there is a serious democratic deficit which many people have described as a form of Apartheid. You may not like that word, with all of its past associations. By all means, help us to find a more accurate description.
In Israel itself we see legislative and institutional discrimination against Palestinians on issues of marriage, land purchase, municipal development, educational and employment opportunities. This hardly lives up to the high ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and it is certainly in breach of the letter and spirit of Britain’s Balfour Declaration.
But what is really surprising, to us, is why you are not shouting about these things too?
This is happening in your name. It is justified as for the good of the Jewish State and the Jewish people. What shocks us is your acquiescence, your lack of protest. Please help us to understand why you have not done more to stop this from happening?
If you really support a two-state solution, explain to us why your leadership never speaks out on Settlement expansion? Tell us why your rabbis are not preparing the community outside of Israel for Jerusalem to be a shared capital city?
You are right too that there are other states and other regimes that behave in far worse ways. But they do not claim to be democracies. They do not wish to be perceived as aligned politically, economically and culturally with Europe and North America. The world imposes sanctions and boycotts against North Korea. Our air force is currently bombing the Islamic State. When Russia backs Ukrainian separatists attempting to take over the Crimea, there is an international crisis.
We are not comparing Israel with the Islamic State or North Korea. Neither do we think Israel is to blame for all the problems that beset the Middle-East today. However, the Palestinians’ long call for their rights to be recognized is clearly a powerful recruiting tool for the Islamic State. And should we really make Boko Haram or President Assad the only benchmark for unacceptable behavior?
We are not picking on Israel unfairly. What is unfair is how much Israel is allowed to get away with. We hear plenty of stern words of rebuke from America, Britain and the EU but never see any real political or economic pressure. We would love to see Israelis and Palestinians sitting down to negotiate. You are right ‘it takes two to tango’ but we would ask you to consider which side is refusing to dance.
This is a very unequal conflict. One side has a powerful economy, superpower support, and one of the strongest armies in the world. The other side has none of these things.
Any student of history knows that those with power and territory very rarely relinquish it without considerable pressure being brought to bear. And those that suffer oppression will always resist.
We can understand your concern about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. We see this very differently though.
The Palestinians have tried to draw world attention to their situation for nearly seventy years. They have tried hi-jackings, assassinations, kidnappings, suicide bombings and stone throwing. We do not condone any of this. But BDS is a peaceful and legal tactic to create international pressure for change. How can we deny them this protest? This has nothing to do with the Nazis or the Holocaust. BDS is a protest in support of human rights. It is a legitimate tactic that is appropriate for this situation. BDS is not a campaign in opposition to peaceful negotiation; it is designed to make a just settlement more likely.
Tell us what signs you see of government-led progress on this issue? We believe you can have a positive influence in shifting the impasse. We believe that we can as well.
Finally, can Israel afford to be so choosy about who it will talk to? Hamas, in disregard of its wretched charter, has long accepted the 1967 Israeli borders. And if it is so extreme and fundamentalist why is it happy to form a coalition with the secular Fatah party which long ago recognized the State of Israel. To us Israel looks like the partner refusing to dance.
None of this makes the Palestinians all angels. But for us the question must be who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors?
We want to work with our Jewish neighbors and our Muslim neighbors to bring a just and peaceful solution to all the people of Israel and Palestine. They deserve nothing less. Together we should be emboldening the leadership of each of our communities to speak out against injustice in the name of the traditions that we each claim to honor.
Please tell us how you think we can work together. But if we cannot work together, we will work alone. We believe this is too important to allow local sensitivities to cloud our judgment of what needs to be done.
In the past, too many Christians have turned their heads and crossed over the road rather than confront injustice when it was in plain view. For our faith to remain true to its best traditions and at all relevant in the world, we cannot behave like that again today or in the future. We are not casting the first stones but we are trying to walk in the footsteps of ‘our teacher.’
Thank you allowing us to set out our position. Now let’s begin to talk about the future. As you say, we are a people of faith and we have much in common.

And there you can pause for breath and gulp down some tea. I’m hoping your Jewish partners in the dialogue will also want to take a moment to re-group.
I’m probably making this sound easier than it will be in reality. In the short-term it may feel like you are damaging important local relationships for little gain. In the long-term though it could be that you are building the foundations of a future Jewish-Christian dialogue that is richer and stronger than anything that has gone before.
So, the moment of truth starts here.
Good luck with starting your difficult conversations!
This article originally appeared on Robert Cohen’s blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.


One thought on “How to Start That Difficult Conversation

  1. There is one aspect of the situation you did not cover, namely normative conduct expected of Israel simply as a member of the community of nations. UN members are not expected to absorb land that happens to be next to them. Of course, some in Israel and in the settlements make the simple answer that “JHWH gave it to us”. There is no logical response, but one hopes that most modern Jews don’t subscribe to the morality portrayed in the books of Joshua and Judges. The most discouraging thing is the unilateralistic mentality of the current Isaeli government. To the extent that the actions of this government put international Jewry at risk, all Jews should fell entitled to a vote.
    Jim Anderson

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