How Jews settle their differences

Our disagreements have not boiled over into Ramallah-style gun battles. But do not assume the Jewish world is immune to lunacy. Op-ed.

Stephen M. Flatow ,

Dani Dayan and Stephen Flatow
Dani Dayan and Stephen Flatow

A recent news item from Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority, caught my eye. At first glance, you might not think it can teach us much about Israeli or Jewish affairs. But it can.

It seems that a nephew of Khalil Al-Sheikh, the brother of a Palestinian Authority cabinet minister, got into a personal quarrel with a member of the Palestinian security forces (the PA’s de-facto army). Determined to defend his nephew’s honor, Khalil Al-Sheikh “arrived at the scene with a group of gunmen,” according to a news report. Al-Sheikh and his gang got into a gun battle with the security forces, and Al-Sheikh ended up dead.

Feuds? Family honor? Shoot-outs? At this point in the story, you may be wondering if you’re reading about an incident from America’s Wild West. But it didn’t end there.

Al-Sheikh’s relatives then rampaged through downtown Ramallah, “firing into the air and at government buildings.” The news reports note that this all comes amidst “a surge in violence in recent months, including clashes between rival clans and villages.”

Let’s see if we can translate this episode into American terms. Imagine that, say, the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos showed up in downtown Washington, D.C., with a group of heavily armed friends, because his nephew was having an argument with the Capitol Hill police. In this absurd scenario, the police shot Devos’s brother dead, and other DeVos family members responded by running through the city streets, firing into the Smithsonian Institution, the Supreme Court building, and assorted trendy restaurants. And this all happened amidst a series of recent armed clashes between Republicans and Democrats, capitalists and socialists, and meat-eaters and vegetarians.

Ridiculous? Impossible? Of course. Because reasonable, civilized people don’t settle their arguments with gunfire. Americans, like Israelis, may raise their voices and argue vigorously with each other (my granddaughter Michal once remarked that Israelis are not really mad at each other when they argue, they just talk very loudly,) but they don’t then reach for their rifles. They shake hands and move on.

It seems that now and then, some of the Jewish community’s more vociferous pundits need to be reminded of the rules of civility.

It seems that now and then, some of the Jewish community’s more vociferous pundits need to be reminded of the rules of civility. When Dani Dayan was named Israel’s consul general in New York City four years ago, some on the Jewish left responded with unbridled hysteria. Dayan had previously chaired the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish towns that lie beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines. Passionate Jews on the left who demonize “settlers” expected Dayan to have horns, and branded him The Enemy before he even stepped foot on American shores.

Four years have passed, and this week, as Dayan prepared to depart the U.S. after completing his service, a few voices on the left—but not enough—admitted how wrong they were to assume Dayan must be some sort of monster.

Michael Koplow, a leader of the Labor Party-created Israel Policy Forum, tweeted: “No matter what the policy differences he has with anyone, he is unfailingly a first class mentsch and treats people with respect. Something we should all try to emulate.”

Abe Silberstein, writing in The Forward, confessed his bewilderment that Dayan did not live up to his demonic stereotype of the Israeli diplomat. Four years ago, Silberstein urged New York Jews to “shun” Dayan. Then Silberstein discovered that Dayan is human. What a shock!

“I found Ambassador Dayan to be a genial and unassuming presence who was as eager to learn my perspective as he was sharing his,” Silberstein now concedes. Thanks to Dayan’s “friendly disposition” and willingness to interact with those with whom he disagreed, he became “well-liked and respected throughout the community.” Dayan was, in short, “a mensch,” and therefore Silberstein now considers himself “among Dayan’s progressive well-wishers.”

Kudos to Koplow and Silberstein for remembering that Jews, even those with whom they disagree, are all human and, in fact, we are all part of an extended family. I wish more people would remember that.

There are those among us who seem to spend a lot of their time hurling mud, demanding that their critics be fired, or threatening lawsuits in order to intimidate their foes. Name-calling too often replaces civil discourse. Angry press releases and accusations of disloyalty too often substitute for calm discussion.

Thank goodness that our disagreements have not yet boiled over into Ramallah-style gun battles. But nobody should assume that the Jewish world is immune to lunacy. We’ve all seen, in recent months, the ratcheting up of the shouting and finger-pointing on both sides of the aisle. We’ve read the long lists of grievances and strident accusations. It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath, dial back the overheated rhetoric, and remember that, at the end of the day, the alternative to Jews recognizing each other’s humanity is the madness of Ramallah.

Stephen M. Flatow is a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, an attorney in New Jersey and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. His book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” is now available on Kindle.