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Conflict Among Jews

Conflict in the Jewish community is a cliché: it is either appropriately endemic to Judaism, or the Major Problem that the Jewish community needs to address and fix.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

Originally published as the introduction to the Berman Jewish Policy Archive Reader’s Guide: Conflict Among Jews .

Conflict in the Jewish community is a cliché, as can be the insistences that it is either appropriately endemic to Judaism or the Major Problem that the Jewish community needs to address and fix. For Jews, conflict is a source of humor (“two Jews, three opinions”), a site of mythic memory (the Second Temple was destroyed on the account of baseless hatred), a key element of the interpretive tradition, and a constant feature of the discourse of a community that both by preference and by dint of historical circumstance evolved radically differently in different places. It is less surprising that Jews experienced conflict with one another throughout their history than it is that any point or on any issue they were able to mount anything close to a consensus.

But a few factors unique to the present make the topic of conflict in Jewish life worthy of reflection. The first is that the open marketplace in which Jews now operate and participate as members makes intra-Jewish conflict much more public than it ever was. If once upon a time Jews knew not to “air their dirty laundry” in public, out of either a sense of shame or fear of repercussions (or both), it is now fair to say that the public square has become a Jewish laundromat. Conflict between Jews is no longer just the stuff of internal conversation but takes place unapologetically out loud.

Similarly, dissent and conflict in Jewish life seems to lack any and all boundaries and limitations. As the importance of shared peoplehood has declined in the modern experience, any underlying shared cultural assumptions of communal norms have disappeared. Resulting political and ideological conflicts, therefore, feel unstable.

And, finally, if as the old adage says “Jews are just like everyone else but more so,” more and more Jewish conflict seems to be the product of imitating our cultural environment rather than constituting the natural and internal dissent of a minority. In America, the red state-blue state political polarization is playing out inside the Jewish community; being hostile to those with whom you disagree is essentially an act of patriotism.

All of which is to say that conflict was and remains a significant feature of Jewish life, and is certainly here to stay. The main question seems to be: how do we transition from trying to resolve it, and start thinking about how to manage it?

The Berman Jewish Policy Archive Reader’s Guide is available as a free download .

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