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Making Room for Dissent

There is a reason as Jews that we like to laugh at the old saying, “two Jews, three opinions.” As a people and as individuals, we aren’t exactly timid about voicing our views. Jewish culture thrives on a good argument. Love of dissent and dialogue is what makes Talmudic tradition—built on give and take and back and forth—so strong. It is probably embedded deeply in our DNA.

Stephen P. Seiden
Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff

There is a reason as Jews that we like to laugh at the old saying, “two Jews, three opinions.” As a people and as individuals, we aren’t exactly timid about voicing our views. Jewish culture thrives on a good argument. Love of dissent and dialogue is what makes Talmudic tradition—built on give and take and back and forth—so strong. It is probably embedded deeply in our DNA.

This is one reason why the tenor of discourse surrounding the deal that aims to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions has been so disheartening. Jewish organizations that once touted their bona fides as the central address, the one place where we can all come together no matter our beliefs, political persuasions or affiliations, have dropped any pretense to providing a big tent and have taken a stand: You’re with us or you’re against us. Organizations that proudly point to open-door inclusiveness in their mission statements have, perhaps unintentionally, slammed it shut in the face of those who disagree with their positions, for or against.

JCC Association has been asked what position our organization is taking on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). We are an umbrella organization, representing more than 350 Jewish Community Centers, YM-YWHAs and camps across North America. Our board members serve on the boards of directors of their local organizations. Some of them are executive directors at their JCCs. Their views range from vehemently against to cautiously optimistic to strongly embracing the Iran deal. All, by the way, seek a strong, safe and vibrant Israel. How does an organization that makes it a point to stand for welcoming inclusion take a stand on the most divisive issue for the Jewish community in recent memory without disenfranchising many in its fold?

For more than a century, JCCs have served the entire Jewish community and friends and neighbors of every religion and background, making space for varied voices. As the largest network of Jewish engagement outside of Israel, JCCs proudly defy denominational separation. “Respecting and supporting diverse Jewish opinions, beliefs and practices are essential for strong and enduring Jewish communities,” reads one of the articles in JCC Association’s Vision Statement of Principles for the 21st Century. We want to continue doing that, and a vote that purports to speak for all JCCs on the Iran deal will imperil one of our core values.

As individuals stirred by the Iran deal, we are obligated to gain knowledge, test our positions, and advocate for what we believe is right. JCCs can and should provide the space for these processes to unfold. Within our walls we present an argument without being argumentative, and we listen to opposing points of view without talking over each other’s voices. As some Jewish organizations rush to take a stand—out of deep and heartfelt concern for the United States and Israel, real and abiding worry about the agreement, and America’s role as a leader— they have driven a deep wedge into the American Jewish community. More distressingly, their message says we have forgotten what it means to be convening organizations.

Diversity of opinion is power. A polarized community is not one that achieves much. In blurring these principles, we lose sight of one of our primary purposes. To best serve our communities we need to bring Jews together even at moments of greatest political divisiveness and passion—to think, debate, reconsider, question, and grow—even if it means exposing ourselves to dissent that makes us uncomfortable. We are a haven for tolerance and discussion and above all, JCCs are a place to dialogue with colleagues and neighbors of every perspective, making all of us wiser, more compassionate, and more prepared to solve the challenges and divisions we face.  At JCCs that is what we do every day.

Stephen P. Seiden is chair of JCC Association’s board of directors; Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is CEO and president of the organization. This article is also posted on eJewish Philanthropy and The Jewish Week.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Thank you, finally a voice of reason. (I would say room for disagreement, not dissent. Dissent assumes someone else holds the microphone. Large Jewish organizations and most certainly AIPAC do NOT represent the views of the entire Jewish community.)

  2. This is a bunch of nonsense designed to maintain the “big tent” of donations. Who are you kidding? What OTHER SIDE is there to this perfidious arrangement where the Jewish people and Israel are first in line as an experiment for an Islamist, fascist nuclear bomb? Would you have argued in 1943 that there are TWO SIDES to the argument by SOME Jews at the time that the American Jewish community should argue with all their might that FDR bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz? Today, the incumbent administration has torn the Jewish community asunder and made us impotent to defend ourselves. Two sides? You think the side which believes that this agreement will shield us from The Iranian fascists is a matter of “legitimate difference?” No, like 9/11, it is a failure of imagination; a failure to recall history and comprehend the capability of evil when evil is armed. Because there are those engaged in soporific armchair, polite “debate,” while they are possessed of a failure of imagination does not mean that most of us will walk the nuclear incineration plank with the rest of you. And no, I am not an outlier – I am a legitimate “establishment” person fed up with this equivocation. We are a group of fools, we Jews – “tikkun olam,” for everyone else but ourselves has become our religion. We have no dignity or self respect because we demand no reciprocity for our good deeds – which Caucasians were there for civil rights more than us? With rare exception -Black legislators have supported this deal. Ask yourself with a straight face: did they do this REALLY believing in the deal’s attributes? (how many of you read this perfidious deal? – I read this deal twice). NO – they voted 1 – party and more importantly, 2 – the president’s skin color. Again, Jews sit and seek polite debate while the noose tightens around us .I am involved with AIPAC for over 25 years – if they will advocate for campaign funding for ANY of those who betrayed us, will they still deserve to lead in advocating our interests? You want to dissent? Mazel Tov – Obama tailor-built J Street for you.

    Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld
    former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, US Senator Al D’Amato and Governor George E. Pataki

    • Dear Mr. Wiesenfeld,
      Thank you for expressing these facts so clearly!
      There is an eery sense of 1938 again. Where are our leaders?
      You are spot on! Mrs. Roberts

  3. Dear Jeffrey,

    Let me begin by saying I share your opinions about the Iran agreement and have made my own views quite public. However, as the Executive Director of a Federation, I have also separated my own opinions from the official position of the Federation. Like the JCCA, we represent a diverse Jewish community with many strongly held opinions. Our job is not to decide who is right and who is wrong. It is to provide forums for community members to educate themselves and make up their own minds.

    I am terribly afraid of the damage this agreement may ultimately cause not only to Israel, but to the United States as well. I respect and welcome your willingness to express your own thoughts. However, I fear much more deeply the damage done to the fabric of Jewish communal life by the type of vitriol that you express in your response than I fear Iran. Rather than defend your position in a rational way, you exuded hatred and disdain for any Jew who disagrees with you. It won’t matter how many nuclear weapons the Iranians build if we destroy the Jewish community on our own.

    David Shtulman

  4. This is the one issue on which we had no right to expect or have diversity. J Street, Rabbis For Peace, Ameinu – all these elements and more have been legitimized and strengthened by Obama, to the detriment of the rest of us. No one has ever so successfully split the Jewish community. Those remaining who are not infatuated with the “tikkun olam” fetish will have to gather our side and stand for Jewish life and dignity. The “tikkun olamers” will be the first victims when the European cancer spreads here. The rest of us will be prepared to defend ourselves. You are relying on uncommitted donors to sustain our Jewish infrastructure – they will not endure .Mr. Shtulman’s politesse addresses tone and not the specifics I have raised .I understand YOUR position sitting where you sit – you would be surprised to learn where I sit. But this game is over. This is a monumental failure of organized American Jewry from top-to-bottom – including AIPAC, where I am also active. The history I have detailed speaks for itself.

    • Mr Weisenfeld speaks truth. One cannot argue with his logic though Shtulman, Seiden, Arnoff bloviate in the way American Jews usually do, rationalizing the mess Jews are in. It seems no matter how deep it gets Jews find a way to make nice and reconcile the facts. Our situation is dire but you don’t seem to know it. You misguideds don’t represent me because I am comfortable acknowledging our circumstances. Israel is now grappling with an existential threat proudly heralded by our black president whose ascendancy to the WH was largely crafted & paid for by American liberal Jews, the ones you represent who you would never under any circumstances, offend. You should be ashamed but you seem clueless. Thank God for individuals like Jeffrey Weisenfeld. The new year approaches. Pray for a better one and the sins you unknowingly support. American Jews are exhausting. Catastrophic behavior that isn’t even understood.

  5. It defies understanding that any honest individual can seriously defend the Iranian run-around. No one has signed this “deal” and yet America is supposed to release$150 billion to the terrorist nation of Iran whose leaders keep preaching DEATH TO AMERICA, and DEATH TO ISRAEL. Sanctions are to be dropped and Iran will be allowed to pick its own inspectors after a lengthy period of delay which will exceed the announced 24 days. The many side deals and agreements, which were not revealed initially, and even now remain unknown, change the nature of the time frame for moving forward. It is clear that the President of the United States has chosen to champion our enemy, Iran, over America’s own best interests, and to willingly sacrifice Israel at the same time. His actions are traitorous and demand judicial review.The silence on the part of the major Jewish organizations who have not openly and loudly denounced this deal, is a betrayal of the Jewish people, of Israel, of America, and all western civilization. Grass roots groups, like the JRRC, the Jewish Rapid Response Coalition, will continue to battle the evil to the extent possible. We invite concerned citizens to join us.


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