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Game-Changer? American Jews Reaching a Tipping Point on Israel

Those who want peace in the Middle East must find the right words to help move American Jews towards a more balanced view of the conflict.

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There’s certainly some risk here. The "Israel right or wrong" crowd is quick to hurl the spurious charge of anti-Semitism at anyone who questions Israeli policy. It’s no fun being called nasty names. One has to develop a thick skin, repeating over and over a simple affirmation: "It’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s government. Plenty of Jews, especially in Israel, do it every day, because they want the best for the Israeli people." 

But that’s the relatively easy part. The greater challenge, for those who want peace and justice in the Middle East, is to find the right words to help move Jews in that direction.

The greater risk is that many progressives, who are somewhere between outraged and disgusted by Israeli policies, will enter the conversation with their moral indignation blazing. No matter how justified that approach may be, it can inadvertently push Jews back away from the tipping point.

Like any people approaching a tipping point, American Jews are bound to be ambivalent, probably confused and perhaps frightened by losing the security of old and familiar certainties.

Their anxiety may be heightened by what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: believing two contradictory things at once. Many Jews are convinced (from a lifetime of conditioning) that Israel must be an innocent victim. Yet they now see obvious evidence that Israel bears significant blame (though certainly not all the blame) for the ongoing conflict.

Since changing long-held views hurts, and cognitive dissonance hurts even worse, there is always an impulse to escape it by denying the new truth and retreating to the old.

If Jews who are near the tipping point get blasted with moralistic condemnations of Israel, many are likely to hunker down in a defensive crouch, closing their ears and their minds to the message. And as they fall back on their old truths, they’ll take an attack on that truth as a personal attack on them, which only makes matters worse.

Jews who have already passed the tipping point in their own minds, and recognize the need for American pressure on Israel, face a different kind of problem: Should they express their new views in public? They can pretty well bet that they’ll suffer some unhappy consequences for taking that risk.

But they can’t predict at all just what the consequences will be, or how bad, or (worst of all) from whom. That’s why it’s such a big risk. Close friendships and even families have broken up over this issue. No Jews who have "seen the light" should be expected to speak out quickly and loudly, as if it were an easy thing. They are probably going to move quite cautiously toward a public stance. If they’re pushed too far or too fast, they may be less likely to move at all.

So as advocates for peace enter the Jewish conversation about Israel, their impact depends on how they approach it. Since the moral issues seem so clear-cut -- since so much of Israeli policy is indeed so outrageous -- it’s hard not to insist on immediate public criticism of Israel. But those who give in to that understandable impulse may find themselves standing on the moral high ground with little political impact to show for it.

The alternative is to show genuine respect for the Jews’ fears and uncertainties, along with sincere concern for the best interests of Israeli Jews, as well as Palestinians.

Respecting all these sensitivities may push some to the limits of their patience and tolerance. But good political strategy always takes full account of psychological reality. The sensitive approach will help the Jewish community move more quickly toward the changes it eventually must go through.

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