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To Talk or Not to Talk: Different People, Different Standards

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.

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Regina Brown

posted June 14, 2007 at 10:58 am

Hello Rebbe! Bravo your article. It is so good for us to learn that the other does not have to be wrong for us to be right. and that perhaps even the litmus test, meaning my own spiritual/intellectual integrity, may have to shift even a little to encompass growing a new and sweet solution for Peace in the Holy Land, just like the almonds who sprouted from Aaron’s staff. Please keep tellin us. Thank you. Rivka bas Cohen

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William R Mitchell

posted June 14, 2007 at 1:03 pm

I am a Christian. In reading the Holy Word I see God giving a land to his people Israel. This is the land of the Jewish people, given to the fathers. I see nor read at any time that you are to give away or negioate this land with anyone. I feel to do so would be going against G-d’s word to his people Israel.

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posted June 15, 2007 at 1:34 pm

I use “Human Being” as my ‘Beliefnet’ nickname, because that is
who I feel I am….JUST a Human Being who happens to have been born Jewish. There are times, however, that I feel more of an alien (from outer space!), than I do a Human. Because MOST, (not all, thank goodness), of my fellow Human Beings regard themselves as “hypenated” people. “Jewish HumANS”, OR “Arab Humans”, or “French Humans”, or German Humans”, etc. Most of the time, these “Professional Ethnics”, as I must refer to them, sadly, do not even use the word “Human” to describe themseoves (Just “Jews”, “/Arabs” , “French”, “Germans”, etc. An “etcetera”, which, to me, could easily be substituted with, “Ad Nauseum”.
I mean, aren’t we all just PEOPLE? There is ONE God, above us all. In Hebrew school, they taught us that this was one great gift of Judaism: that One God equals people finding more commonality with each other than differences. Because we were all created by the same ONE God.
Suppose I’m talking about Ice Cream. My own favourite flavour happens to be ‘vanilla fudge’…..but I like other flavours, on occasion, too. There is, however, one flavour of ice cream that I totally and completely detest. This is called ‘rocky road’. My ex-brother in law, (whom I still see on occasion), has this as his VERY FAVOURITE FLAVOR! So, am I supposed to feel more at home with him, than with a Catholic, Protestant, or Moslem, whose favourite flavour, like mine, is Vanilla Fudge?
I hope you get my idea. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to judge people on whether they are kind to others, (my ex-brother in law is, at time, nice…..but sometimes he comes out with statements that border on the truly sadistic). Whether or hot they have prejudices, (I often wonder, sometimes, about my aunts and uncles — if they had not been born Jewish, would they be anti-Semites. At times, (with their vehement, anti-Christian words, I sadly think they might be.) My ex-brother in law, (and far too many other people, sadly), seem to derive all or most of their own self-worth from the idea that they were born Jewish! Being a “Professional Jew”, (because that’s all he seems to profess!), like being a “Professional Ethnic” of any kind, is to me, abhorent. Every Human Being is an Individual, and should be judged as such! (The horrid anti-German feeling during, and after, World War I had a large part in creating World War II. When my mother worked at a department store before her retirement only 10 years ago, she worked with a German woman, who said that it was horrible being German….because everyone expects you to be a prejudiced murderer! This was NOT true of the nice lady my mom worked with, any more than it was true that my mother considered herself “Jewish First”. Like me, she considered herself HUMAN first. I was always taught, by both of my parents, that Jews are no better, and no worse, than anybody else.
If you dialoge with opeople of tother religions, truy ot see the SIMULARITIES rather than the differences, between those religions. Where there are differences, you can always “agreee to disagree”. Amicably. After all, there IS

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David Cheater

posted June 16, 2007 at 12:59 pm

A couple of comments.
I regard myself as a Human Doing. While all of us are created as ben Adam, so we should not give ourselves airs of superiority, we are also created as individuals with different gifts. If each of us can cultivate a love of difference and an appreciation of each other that will move us closer to a true tolerance. (I sing tenor and I would find it awfully boring to sing in a chorus without basses, sopranos and altos not to mention people who play instruments.)
As to Medinath Israel… While HaShem gave Eretz Israel to the Children of Israel HaShem also gave us Torah and access to the Holy Spirit. Our morality should never be dependant on the level of morality of our neighbours but only upon the expectations of the Torah. It shouldn’t be difficult to rise above the level of morality of Hamas and Hezbollah. (As far as that goes, a rapid weasel will find it easy to rise above the level of morality of the Salafi.)

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posted June 16, 2007 at 9:19 pm

For those of us who have finished their group hugs here are some comments:
1/ One of the reasons I like the book of Joshua was that he was what we sometimes need-a Human smashing
2/ While it is nice to see an ice cream cone: oh there’s the chocolate people, there’s the vanilla people, there’s the mocca people, there the strawberry people all working together in such sweetness-I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…
But lots of times someone will take your ice cream cone, shove it down your throat till you suffocate. That’s when you need a powerful army with lots of ruthless people and weapons that can really hurt and destroy. Viva Jack Bauer!

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Laura Rojas

posted June 17, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Okay, I’m beginnig to see Dave what you are saying, Dave, and others. I am a Catholic, and like Jew were are constantly havign our faults pointed out (as if we weren’t aware of them int eh first place). My faith says I have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, whether in business, at home, and in every situation of my life. THIS IS NOT ALWAYS EASY. There is one Old Testament story I don’t understand, or maybe I do, but I don’t quite get “the moral of the story”.
Abram made Ishamel with Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden. Then Sarai gets pregnant miraculously with Isaac. Sarai tells Abram to get rid of Hagar, or at least send her packing, which he does… yet Abram bestows on Ishamael his personal blessing, his birthright – as it were, and the Lord G-d did bless Ishamel.
So I guess I’m asking (excuse me for being stupid) are we talking about real estate, are we talking about birthrights, or are we talking that every belief system thinks they “have an inside track to the Creator?” Christianity teaches us, NO ONE has an inside track to G-d.
So no, I would hate someone for killing my children – I would hate the act, but I am not permitted through my faith to hate the person. If we believe that every man, woman, and child on this earth is made in the likeness of the Creator, we would hate G-d to hate our brethren – sine He is in us, and we are in Him.
I grew up in a suitcase and lived all over the world, due to my dad’s job. My parents somehow managed to raise me without fear. Even though we lived in unstable countries, we were never fearful for our safety. We just knew we were not part of the problem, and were trying to be part of the solution, so perhaps the Creator gave us grace to forge ahead.
I work now with the disenfranchised Latinos who cannot receive justice. People ask me when I go into these neightborhoods; “Aren’t you ever afraid?” I never even consider that as an option, since I am there trying to help someone. It doesn’t even dawn on me that I should even consider being afraid.
I want peace… for everyone… it doesn’t matter what their belief system is, if they have a concept of peace and want to live by it, I can follow their idea, and meet them halfway.

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