I went to my friend’s event Tuesday night, a Hillel event, titled “A Funny Thing Happened On My Way to the Middle East,” in which Joel Chasnoff spoke about his life story, and in particular, his relationship to Israel. What started as a stand up bit—typical in its delivery, ingenuity, and laugh-generating ability but atypical in its Jewish-oriented humor—turned into a serious opportunity to discuss Israel in a safe space among mostly Jewish students. I had a ball in the first half of the event, chuckling to myself, sometimes even letting out a snort. During the second half, however, I listened intently, as this was one of my first opportunities of the year to be in dialogue about Israel in a conversation that was not necessarily among friends.
On the State of Israel, Jews across the globe fall along a wide spectrum, and on what Zionism means, those in the Jewish diaspora struggle to define a term upon which we can all agree. Chasnoff—perfectly exemplifying this polarized community of diaspora Jews, and in particular, American Jews—took on the personas of four different characters, each of whom represented a different and commonly held belief about supporting or not supporting Israel from abroad. These ranged from blindly supporting Israel no matter its policies to believing Israel to be obsolete, a necessity of the past that should be dismantled for the potential of a more peaceful future.
While I fall somewhere in between these positions, others in the room did not. Yet Chasnoff’s characters directed our comments and attention toward them, allowing the swath of Jews in the room to voice their concerns and opinions without hesitation, and without the potential for serious backlash. After all, these were just characters.
But they weren’t really. The brilliance in this exercise is that these were not just characters, but faces that we all knew and had seen before. They were our friends and family. They were our ideological opposites, the Jew who we knew to avoid talking to about Israel and Zionism because their opinions differed from ours.
Tuesday night, I got the chance to begin the long and probably never-ending conversation about the funny things that happen in the Middle East with those whom I would otherwise not have tried to engage in this type of conversation. We felt safe speaking about something that rarely makes one feel safe, even within the Jewish community.
Outside the Jewish community, then, there must be similar struggles. Perhaps not about the Middle East, perhaps about issues I am not even aware of. But they exist—these somewhat tabooed problems that never cease to divide those within a community. Recently, on campus, we have seen some of these internal divides play out in a slightly more public manner, with articles written back and forth among students of color in regards to the recent BSU demands. A safe space is hard to create, even within a tight-knit group. A safe space is even more difficult to maintain, as everyone comes from a different background that will make each person react differently to different things.
As people can feel ignored or unsafe within their own communities, all the more clear is the fact that people can feel the same way in the more public space of a college campus—the intersection of maturing young adults from many different walks of life. Yet, just as I accept being a part of my community regardless of any other member’s individual standpoint on Zionism or Israel; just as being within a community entails working to fix its imperfections from the inside; just as I struggle to find ways to have the conversations with those on the other side of the spectrum within my community; people within other communities must be doing the same.
With this in mind, should I not cut other communities some slack? Should I not recognize the probability that their internal workings are similar to my own community’s, even if our opinions may be different? Should I not try the practice of empathy—to extend the conversations I try to have with other Jews to a conversation I try to have with those other communities? Should everybody not do the same?
These conversations are difficult regardless of whether it is between community members or between members of different communities. This is not a hard point to recognize. Yet, in recognizing it, we give ourselves a greater chance to talk out our issue. Instead of establishing the overall opinion of a community for all to see, let us come together to view each community as the spectrum of individuals it is.
In doing so, we can create a campus where even a truly opposing opinion is not a reason to establish boundaries but a reason to open dialogue.