The war in Israel and Gaza has taken a heavy toll on so many fronts. Foremost, of course, there is the staggering number of deaths of innocent people on both sides. And thousands of miles away, here at home, there are broken and strained friendships, communal rifts like the one a friend in another midwestern city reported. Her congregation is imploding over a sermon delivered by her rabbi who implored her congregants to feel something for the innocent women and children in Gaza. Her plea, so modest in its intent, has caused members to threaten to break away to start a new congregation. That story represents for me the kind of hardening of hearts, the inability to feel and express compassion, that may inflict the most lasting and irreversible damage of the war. On a very different level, the U.S.’s support of Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza has eroded Biden’s standing among young voters and voters of color in ways that threaten to propel Donald Trump into the White House in November!
Amidst all that bad news, I want to tell you about a personal
experience which represents the only positive thing that, for me, has come out of these last two months of carnage. Some background: In that long ago time before Covid — 5, 6, even 7 years ago — I got an email from a woman I will call Rochel (the ch pronounced in that throat- grating way required by Hebrew and Yiddish). She probably wouldn’t object to my using her real name, but I’ve chosen, out of an abundance of caution, to keep this anonymous.
Rochel was looking for advice about an education project she was interested in launching and had gotten my name from a mutual friend who thought I could help her. Both Rochel and the referring friend belong to the strong religious Jewish community which people refer to as ultra-orthodox. I’m going to resist that usage here because it conjures up inappropriate Old World stereotypes which don’t come close to representing these two very worldly and engaged women. I’ll tell you about the project in a minute but for now, suffice it to say that I met with Rochel once in a local coffee shop and read some of the material she sent about the philosophy on which the project was based. My wife and I even had dinner at her home.
That was 5,6,7 years ago. The fog of the Covid years has wrought havoc with our sense of time. Except for one email 3 years later when Rochel was ready to submit a proposal for funding her project, she and I were not in touch until I received a note from her almost two months ago. She had read one of my blog posts about the Israel/Gaza war. She wanted to understand, she said, how someone she respected could be thinking so differently about the war.
Rochel writes: If people can just give each other a chance to speak and really try to understand each other, without trying to win arguments, it can bring us closer. The problem is, it’s tough to find folks with really different views who can talk without getting all emotional. This is especially true when one side realizes they don’t know everything and needs to go do some research. It’s not a weakness to admit the other side made you think; that’s actually the whole point
What was so striking about her note was the way in which she was positioning herself as a learner. I was being presented with a rare opportunity to engage in a respectful dialogue with someone with views very different from mine. Opportunities like this are rare these days, not just on the war but about just about any subject in the public sphere. Although it seemed as if she was portraying this proposed exchange as a learning opportunity for her, I saw it as reciprocal, equally beneficial and enlightening for me as well.
We’ve been at it for almost two months now. We both acknowledged our dependence on our own information silos, so we’ve been trading selections that are shaping our thinking about the war. Mine, of course, are the NY Times, MSNBC, The New Yorker, etc., all sources that Rochel doesn’t trust. She makes more use of online sources like Instagram, though not exclusively. I’m skeptical of unmediated sources because you can find material there to support any position you care to adopt. The last one was an interview with a respected British journalist who presented a more convincing defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza than the Israeli government itself has offered. I’m wrestling with that one.
Rochel has posed some challenging questions to me that have become part of our weekly Zoom conversations, every Sunday at 10. “What do you think about all the innocent people who were killed in the Dresden bombings in WWII?” “Why can’t the other Arab nations, especially Egypt, rescue the people of Gaza by opening their borders to them?” “Weren’t we there first, as is documented in the Bible?” I ask, in turn, whether there can ever be an end to the war that would satisfy Israel’s goals? And so on.
We’ve tried to do some reading together to be discussed at our Sunday morning sessions, but busy lives keep intervening. Rochel made the bold move of beginning Rashid Khalidi’s book on the Palestinians, while I’ve been reading to her passages from Enemies and Neighbors: Jews and Arabs, 1917-2017 to help fill in her admitted gaps in the more recent history ofthe region. Discussions grounded in source material are much less likely to fly off into Cloud Cuckoo Land.
There are always surprises which often serve the healthy task of breaking stereotypes. Rochel is the mother of six children but is a staunch pro-choice supporter. She wants to get gun training to protect her students, while I shudder at the thought of all that can go wrong when there are guns and children in the same space.
Although we’ve found areas of common ground on the war, I don’t think this was ever about changing each other’s minds. It’s about understanding what the other believes and why, without rejecting and demonizing those with whom you disagree. The Trump years have made that an increasingly more remote goal. Whenever we decide that it’s time to move on from our exchanges, I hope we will remain friends, capable of respectfully disagreeing, but friends, nonetheless.
PS. The educational project that brought us together originally is thriving. It’s a space in which kids who did not flourish in their yeshivot, as Jewish religious schools are called, can find projects, activities and materials that are engaging and capable of enhancing learning. I’ve only seen videos, but I hope one day to visit in person.