A few thoughts in response to Eli Stern’s typically insightful and unflinching response to a much-vexing and often-divisive issue. I am very much in favor of a litmus test for all conversations, not just those devoted to, or conducted between members of the Muslim and Jewish communities. However, I believe that the test is one that should be imposed from within, that is, upon us, and not one that is used to either qualify or disqualify someone else as a viable partner for such conversation.
The test is quite simple and goes like this: (1) Can I be present in the room without sacrificing what I consider to be my own personal intellectual/spiritual integrity, and (2) can I remain a constructive force in moving the conversation ahead while so doing? If these two criteria can be met, then anyone is a viable and appropriate partner for conversation–but not necessarily so for everybody they might talk to. And that’s the point.
We assume that there needs to be a single standard for such encounters, and that assumption is clearly wrong. We do not assume that each of us needs to be equally intimate in conversation with everyone in order to have such conversations with anyone, so why impose that norm here? In fact, we use the notion of litmus testing, as typically applied, to limit the possibility of any conversation in which we ourselves do not want to participate for one of two reasons: Either we are uncomfortable being the ones to say that we have reached the limits of our readiness to engage and find it easier to blame the non-engagement on the moral or political limitations of the other party to the proposed conversation. Or we assume that our participation in such conversation will “legitimate” the other side. The latter is a profoundly arrogant position, which assumes that the “other side” needs us to be legitimate. If in fact they do, then they are so weak that it is not worth worrying about such legitimatization–or they are actually strong, in which case they don’t need us to legitimate them, either.
It seems to me that in any sophisticated community, there should always be forces saying yes to certain conversations and some who say no. For example, this is the case when it comes to the question of whether to talk with individuals who do not acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Some Jews will do it, others won’t, for equally valid reasons. In this case, Jews and/or Jewish organizations that love the Jewish people equally and are equally committed to its security see the policy implications of that identical commitment in opposite ways–i.e., one in having the conversation and the other in saying no to it.
The trick lies in the maintaining healthy relationships within the community between the “yes-sayers” and the “no-sayers,” who would always support the intentions, if not the policies, of those within their own community with whom they may disagree over having a certain conversation with a certain party. The tension over needing a single standard reflects the absence of such relationships within our own community and the resulting vulnerability which results from that absence.
Finally, the Jewish people are stronger now than at any time in our history and we need to make decisions about those with whom we will or will not speak in light of that strength. I am not naïve about the enormity of the challenges that we face, but our ability is first and foremost a function of how we see ourselves and each other. As 10 of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout out the land said, we look like grasshoppers to ourselves, so of course, that’s how we looked to everyone else. That attitude kept us from inheriting the land in a timely fashion, and seeing ourselves as small now will keep us from making the biggest possible contribution to a series of issues about which the world needs our collective wisdom and to which we must commit ourselves.
Guest blogger Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and author of the forthcoming book, “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” (Harmony, Dec. 2007). Co-host of the popular weekly radio show, “Hirschfield and Kula,” on KXL in Portland, OR, he is the creator and host of “Building Bridges: Abrahamic Perspectives on the World Today,” seen weekly on Bridges TV – The American Muslim Television Network.