MONTREAL — A small group of Jewish students and other young people gathered at the McGill University law faculty April 2 in the hope of setting an example for a new openness in the community toward diverse opinions on Israel and Zionism.
The panel discussion was organized and moderated by Rachel Deutsch, a McGill graduate and social worker, who believes Jews, especially the young, should be able to publicly express their critical or simply questioning views on Israel, as well as the relationship between the Diaspora and the Jewish state, or their own Jewish identity.
She wants to encourage a “respectful conversation” between these Jews and those with mainstream opinions.
Deutsch said such discussions are usually private, among family and friends, and even then, they’re fraught with tension. Those who do speak out risk – or fear – being ostracized from the community, subjected to scorn and branded as troublemakers. It may even strain personal relationships, she said.
The result, she said, is the sense that some topics are taboo, and it’s better to remain silent.
The evening saw a rare instance of a self-described Zionist sitting together with an anti-Zionist on the panel. Menachem Freedman, a “progressive” Zionist, and Sarah Woolf, who is active in promoting the Palestinian cause, including Israeli Apartheid Week, sat together at the table without any conflict between them.
Freedman, a law student, is a native of Montreal who studied at a yeshiva in Israel and served in the Israeli Defence Forces. He serves on the board of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
Woolf, a McGill graduate, is an editor at the Montreal Review of Books and a researcher for the online Museum of Jewish Montreal.
They were joined by another law student, Avishai Sharon, an Israeli who has been living in Montreal for the past three years, who served in the IDF, attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was engaged in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue; and Sam Bick, a graduate of the Jewish day school system who is now involved with an organization advocating for social justice in the Middle East.
Freedman said apathy is a growing problem among young Jews whose views on Israel or the conflict are outside the mainstream, and that isn’t good for the continuity of the community.
“We have to create a more inclusive Jewish community in Montreal, or there will be more alienation,” he said.
Bick said his 12 years at Solomon Schechter Academy and Bialik High School did not prepare him for critical thought. “Political Zionism was not questioned. We were not even aware it was a choice, but it is a choice, and that has to be recognized… We have to create more space for dissent within the community.”
Sharon said discussion of this kind is inhibited because soon the argument turns to “the existential threat” faced by Israel from the Arabs.
Both he and Woolf regret that, according to them, fear underlies Jews’ relationship to Israel and frames the debate.
“I want to disentangle fears about the Jewish identity from Zionism, it isn’t necessarily the answer,” she said. “I do not want my fear to be responsible for someone else’s oppression, and I think that’s what is going on.”
Deutsch, who works at a native women’s centre, said she is inspired by other communities that have overcome their reluctance to address painful, even shameful, issues by talking about it openly.
She is working on a film in which young Jews with critical or questioning views on Israel and Zionism and what it means to be Jewish express themselves candidly.
Deutsch had hoped to have more panelists and audience members with mainline positions about Israel and Zionism, and had reached out to Hillel and other community organizations to participate, but received a lukewarm response.