Click here to see Ha’Am’s Fall 2017 Print Edition: “Growing Pains”
Living in Los Angeles gives us no shortage of access to interesting speakers, lectures, panels and workshops on a variety of topics we care about. In the Jewish community, we often find that these events, sponsored by one organization or another, have educational benefit or serve as a call to action for social change.
Calls to action, if executed properly, can be the driving force for a community invested in creating change. But “properly” is the main factor in determining whether an event was successful in fostering activism and ongoing commitment. A mentor of mine refuses to organize any events that don’t pass the “so what?” test. An event that serves as a one-off — with no intent by the organizers or the participants to pursue follow-up — may have been a “nice chatting with you” opportunity, but a waste of time in the long run. Someone walking away from the event should never be left lingering thoughts of “so what? Why did I bother attending this?”
Some events, which have no tangible call to action, are absolutely fine and are not subject to the “so what?” test. For purposes of this conversation, we’ll separate “call to action” from “click to donate,” which is its own category. A growing segment of Jewish and pro-Israel programming is ripe for positioning as the most important call to action of our day, but the message cannot be delivered via any one-off event.
Enter intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, the most critically needed form of engagement the Jewish community should champion right now. Many of the major issues and policies that affect minority communities across the nation are either directly or historically “Jewish issues” as well, and the Jewish community needs to be at the forefront of making those conversations happen.
As a blanket rule, inter-communal dialogue, to which the Jewish Community is a party, always needs to be genuine — and pass the “so what?” test. A panel that features members of another community juxtaposed with Jewish communal leaders is great and necessary, as long as it leads to ongoing collaboration or at the very least, another opportunity for Jews and the partner faith/cultural group to reconvene. Only through long-established relationships and trust can real partnerships begin to blossom.
A recent program by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Los Angeles showed how fruitful inter-religious dialogue can be. During “Enemies, A Love Story: A New Way Forward for Jewish-Muslim Relations,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative co-director, noted that the first step in building partnership between two communities is through education, followed shortly by trust-building.
The challenge with dialogue and exposure to new viewpoints is finding that entry point. What concerns or commonalities do we leverage as potential springboards for dialogue? With regard to Jewish-Muslim dialogue, Imam Abdullah says that too often, the parties resort to “safe” topics: similarities between kashrut and halal, other religious practice, prayer, etc. The elephant in the room is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which no one seems to want to address at the get-go. But Antepli, along with co-director Yossi Klein Halevi (who also spoke at the Hartman Institute program at Beth Jacob, October 29), believes it’s critical to make that part of the conversation from the beginning. The two do not see value in pursuing disingenuous dialogue with no intent of tackling the tough issues.
This is the core of what Jews and our community allies need to be focusing on. Only through real “so what?”-proof dialogue can we make important inroads in pursuit of tolerance and understanding.
The same principle is at play when Sarah Silverman visits the home of a right-leaning American home in the pilot of her new show “I Love You America.” While a conversation over dinner begins a comedic-induced portrayal of cultural differences, the oft-vulgar Jewish comedian quickly engages in conversations about voting for Trump, same-sex marriage and the state of the country.
“Did we change each other’s minds? F*ck no,” Silverman says in a voiceover at the end of the segment. “But we did learn that we don’t have to be divided to disagree.”
As bizarre as it is for us to discuss Sarah Silverman and Yossi Klein Halevi in the same column, it’s even more interesting to note that these conversations work. Silverman ends her dinner party with hugs for the very sort of people she lambasts for supporting Trump in the show’s opening sequence, and Halevi, along with Antepli, have now engaged over 100 Muslim people in genuine dialogue and mutual understanding.
Within UCLA, Los Angeles and beyond, we need to be pursuing the sorts of dialogue that passes the “so what?” test and puts us on a path toward relationship building and mutual understanding. Focusing on panels and programs that speak to the work yet to be done is key for giving the Jewish community legitimacy and standing in inter-communal work.
Whether it’s Sarah Silverman eating tortilla chips with Trump voters or it’s bringing delegations of American Muslims to Israel, change and understanding begins where we can think beyond one-offs and always pursue the follow-up.