The Talmud says that if dissent is not visible within a Jewish community, the community is not healthy. True Jewish leaders need to learn to build bridges and engage with difficult issues instead of cutting off parts of their community out of fear.
We are young North Carolinian Jews who are invested in Yiddishkayt, our Jewish communities, and solidarity with Palestinians. On Sunday, as we tried to engage in conversation with other members of the Jewish community, community leaders directed police to forcibly remove us from the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) and silenced our voices.
Over two years ago, a multi-faith and multi-racial coalition came together here in Durham, North Carolina to ask the city council to affirm that Durham police would not participate in trainings with the Israeli military, in which police departments all over the United States regularly take part. This April, the Durham City Council unanimously passed a policy that made Durham the first city to bar its police from engaging in international military-style training.
We have watched our Jewish community become increasingly divided over this issue. Members of the right-wing group Voice for Israel called for certain young Jewish women who supported the vote to lose their positions in synagogue leadership and their jobs as religious school teachers; those women subsequently received hate mail and harassment. Others targeted our Jewish mayor, calling him (among other things) an antisemitic Jew. Rabbis and leaders in our community have presented their opposition to the City Council policy as representative of the entire Jewish community, erasing the many Jews who supported the policy.
This past Sunday, the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill and Voice for Israel hosted an event at the Levin JCC called “Durham City Council Statement Singling out Israel: Jewish Community Responses.” Instead of platforming the diverse array of Jewish community perspectives, the speakers, including a Christian pastor, were from groups that were unilaterally opposed to the City Council policy.
We were disappointed and hurt to find that “Jewish Community Responses” did not include a single voice that represented our opinion. Before the event, we wrote an open letter letter to the organizers asking them to invite a member of Jewish Voice for Peace to speak. They did not. So on Sunday, we came to the JCC to listen to the panelists and ask questions during the question and answer session.
The panelists seemed to take for granted that everyone in the audience opposed the city council statement. Speakers compared the statement to blood libel and colorfully smeared the D2P coalition, blaming the coalition for white supremacist and antisemitic flyers that appeared around town. During the Q&A session, panel organizers screened questions, and ours were discarded.
When we realized that even our questions were being ignored, we started to hand out copies of our letter to the editor to the people at the event. Within moments, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill approached us, accompanied by a couple of police officers, while six or seven other officers looked on from a few feet away. It was clear that the police presence was a premeditated response to the possibility of our own presence; the Federation had decided to forcibly remove us before we ever said a word. At the CEO’s direction, the police ordered us off the premises under threat of being charged with trespassing. As we left, someone in the crowd shouted after us, “You’re not Jewish!” The door closed behind us, and our voices were cut off and silenced.
The Talmud says that whenever the Sanhedrin unanimously condemns a defendant, the verdict must be thrown out. Any time Jewish leadership presents a unanimous opinion on an issue, it means that something is being overlooked, voices are being silenced, and something is very wrong. If dissent is not visible within a Jewish community, the community is not healthy. True Jewish leaders need to learn to build bridges and engage with difficult issues instead of cutting off parts of their community out of fear.
The Jewish Federation claims that they “embrace pluralism and welcome a diversity of beliefs and opinions from every member of our community,” but those values were not reflected in the way we were treated on Sunday. In the aftermath of Sunday’s event, we have heard, as individuals, from someone from the Federation who expressed understanding of our concerns. We expect continued engagement and recognition by Jewish leadership that we are an important part of this community.
An increasing number of young American Jews are getting involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement. If Jewish communities want to weather this quickly changing political moment, leadership needs to value their voices. And if we truly want to see peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians, Jewish community leaders will have to listen to voices they disagree with.
Cops may have removed us from the Jewish Community Center, but we cannot be removed from the Jewish community. Whether our community leaders are ready to acknowledge and accept us is up to them. We care deeply about our Jewish community, and we don’t want to be forced to leave a part of ourselves at the door. We would have loved to see an event on Sunday where Jews on both sides of the issue could come together and share their reactions, process pain and fear, and seek understanding.
The High Holidays are approaching: a time for teshuvah and repairing harm. Our leaders have a responsibility to welcome Jews like us as full participants in our communities. What better time to do it?