Thinking About Jewish Tolerance

A Jewish diversity conference held earlier this month in San Francisco brought together people from various backgrounds and regions – Europe, Israel, Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Australia – for a gathering that pretty much resembled a United Nations of Jews.

Sponsored by the Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank and funded by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (a non-partisan public policy institute), the four-day event addressed a range of topics from communal development and common bonds to anti-Semitism and conflicts between Jews of different backgrounds and origins.

Be’chol lashon means in every tongue. Hard to fathom as it may be to some people, not all Jews are white and of European descent; indeed, Jews come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, yet it is rare for the subject of Jewish diversity to be discussed.

Whether they live in London, New York, Tel Aviv or anywhere else, Jews sometimes overlook the need for their own internal community dialogue. An event such as the San Francisco conference needs to be organized around the Jewish world.

We are a small but global community of perhaps 13 million people, but how often do we as Jews within our own community talk about the work we must do in uniting ourselves?

Our self-elected leaders will often talk up the work they are doing in developing discussions with other communities, but how many of these same leaders are actually working to develop dialogue inside our own community and among its diverse components?

RECENTLY in the UK we saw a falling-out within the Jewish Association for Business Ethics over the role non-Orthodox rabbis would play in the organization. The Orthodox element did not welcome greater involvement from its non-Orthodox cousins, and so some of the group’s supporters had enough and decided they would no longer remain involved. We have all too often seen rabbis and communal leaders shake hands with their non-Jewish counterparts while refusing to share a platform with their own Jewish cousins because of a conflict in Torah interpretation.

We need to stop all the backstabbing and internal conflicts among the Jewish religious organizations and find a way to develop a level of mutual respect. The need goes beyond merely tolerating another person’s interpretation of the Torah; it also involves respecting various interpretations and understandings of Jewish life as manifested in the various branches of Judaism.

AS JEWS, we talk a great deal about the importance of tolerance and of respect for others, but within our own communities the power struggles that religious organizations are engaged in for control and influence often lead to bitter conflicts. The Jewish Association for Business Ethics issue highlights this well in the UK, but there are other similar cases across the world.

Celebrating Jewish diversity and the challenges and opportunities it presents is something we should all embrace.

An Ashkenazi Jew from London could learn something from an Japanese Jewish convert living in France, while an African Jew from Ethiopia could teach an Indian Jew something; it’s all about providing a forum and opportunity for Jews to communicate – not just how alike they are, but how different they are. Each person can learn something worth bringing back to his or her local community.

We have enough external problems – anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, for instance – so allowing our own internal problems to fester is nothing short of catastrophic.

The Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank gathering highlighted the importance of Jews from all backgrounds engaging in communication. We need to open our mouths and start using our tongues to talk to each other, rather than to shout, backstab or insult.

And what we need to see from our leaders, if they are really as concerned as they claim about the interests of the community, is more talking with fellow Jews outside their own closed circle. This is something that needs to develop into a continual dialogue.

The writer is editor of Web site.