Talking To Ourselves
Once again, events in Israel have intensified and, once again, many in the Jewish community are frantically sending flurries of emails and articles to each other. “You must read this one” we write to each other, “This writer says it best!” For many of us — myself included — we are like literary traffic cops, constantly re-directing the massive inflow of Israel-related information that comes our way, all in the hopes of influencing someone else’s opinion.
But invariably, the person on the other end of our email is someone who feels pretty much just as we do, or at least that is our hope. Be it a friend, a family member or someone else, we’re essentially pushing a position to a like-minded person who, not surprisingly, often responds with a satisfying “You’re right!” or maybe another article that you just happen to find wonderfully persuasive. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Let’s face it; we spend a lot of time preaching to our own choir.
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But are we getting anything accomplished here? What purpose is served by sharing pro-Israel information with people who are already pro-Israel? Are we just chasing a quick rush of validation? Are we getting anything done? Our emails might momentarily stir up the passion of a supporter, but then what? Does that turn the needle one bit for a safer and more secure Israel?
There are approximately 15 million Jews in a world of about 7 billion people. The Jewish people are, as is often said, “just a fragment” of what we once were. Clearly, we need allies. Israel’s brand is badly tarnished around the world, and it is up to us to logically and factually lay out the case why Israel merits wide support. That’s a tall mission and talking just to ourselves is not going to cut it.
I recently went to lunch with a few friends at a local Middle Eastern restaurant. On the way out, I saw a complimentary copy of the Arab American News, which I picked up and took home out of curiosity. The cover depicted a graphic and shocking scene from Gaza — a full-page color photograph of an angry legless man in a wheelchair, twirling a slingshot toward Israeli soldiers in the midst of black, billowing smoke. The caption underneath stated that the man was “killed by the Israelis while fighting for freedom.” Another front-page headline referred to the “Gaza Massacre” and another cited an editorial within the paper titled “America spits on the graves of people dying for freedom.”
Emotions among Arabs and Jews are particularly raw at this time. But the words in the Arab American News are not from Ramallah or Tehran. They’re from Dearborn, our neighbors, and contained within a newspaper in a popular restaurant in a Jewish suburb. We’re Jewish Americans and Arab Americans, literally living side by side within this community.
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There are some local Jewish groups that actively seek communication and relationships outside of the community. They are composed of many talented and committed people, but the number of active supporters is paltry compared to the overall number of some 65,000 Jews in the Metropolitan Detroit community.
The Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC is a local fixture in representing Detroit’s Jewish community and Israel in establishing relationships with other ethnic and religious groups. It doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations; it leans into them. Lately, it has been working with the local Muslim community, which is sometimes (like these days) a bit of a challenge. But it has found that relationship-building is its best hope.
“Our relationship with the Muslim community,” says David Kurzmann, executive director of the JCRC/AJC, “was never built around Israel. We stick to things that unite us. And we’ve been at this long enough that we have friendships.”
The Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a newer group that is a partnership between the JCRC/AJC and the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, is tackling difficult issues head on between both communities. The coalition is committed to promoting solidarity and speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism. It publishes a regular newsletter and has participated in or hosted a number of events, including a joint Passover seder, a Shabbat dinner with young professionals from each community and a field trip for Detroit middle school students to the Holocaust Museum in West Bloomfield. It is now planning a series of “Lunch, Listen and Learn” sessions so that members of each community can spend time discussing a host of difficult and sensitive topics, from Louis Farrakhan to Jewish racism.
Similarly, AIPAC (nationally and in Michigan) has a robust outreach program to non-Jews, specifically Christians, blacks and Hispanics. AIPAC is singularly focused on promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel. It has been enormously successful in promoting pro-Israel advocacy among non-Jews, and it is always working on educating others — especially a mostly Christian Congress and staff members — on issues vital to Israel. AIPAC does not and cannot talk to just Jews. Its mission, by definition, proscribes that.
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By taking affirmative action to have a dialogue, form relationships and advance joint programming, these groups and others do an invaluable service to the Jewish community. They take their knowledge and their passion and convert it into action for the benefit of Jews within and without our community. They succeed by having people active in community outreach, and they are always looking for additional help (each group can be located by a simple Google search, or one can contact the JCRC/AJC for additional information and opportunities).
Sharing emails and articles among ourselves are important ways to keep us sharp, educated and more adept at countering an anti-Jewish agenda. But it’s not an end in and of itself. All the flurry of internet sharing — however captivating, persuasive and time-consuming — is just the preparatory class for the real work that needs to be done. The real work is in doing something with all that gained knowledge. The real work is in being a knowledgeable, credible and effective advocate to those outside our community.
Are you ready to start preaching outside of our choir?
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan director for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.