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Our Small Jewish Community Must Remain a Big Tent

By Zachary Benjamin
Executive Director
Jewish Federation of New Mexico

Zach's page one photo from FBOne of the responsibilities of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico is to keep a finger on the community’s pulse and stay educated about those issues of concern to Jewish people throughout our state. While our board and professionals all work to keep informed regarding what is on the minds of New Mexico’s Jews, much of this work is accomplished through my personal conversations and those of my colleagues with individuals and groups of community members.

As we learned this month, when the federation hosted a community-wide forum on immigrants’ rights and refugee resettlement, listening to the community can help the federation offer timely and important programming to ensure that we are all educated and engaged. We also become aware of issues that are more difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, to address.

One such issue lies just below the surface of our day-to-day interactions with our fellow Jews. We are blessed to be part of a diverse Jewish community consisting of varied ethnicities, religious streams, and yes, diverse political ideologies. In the months since the election, I have been privileged to engage in wide-ranging interactions with Jewish New Mexicans from across the political spectrum, all of whom expressed deep concerns about the direction of our country, the increasing frequency of anti-Semitic activity, and the security of other vulnerable populations. However, a troubling characteristic of the current national state of upheaval is the fact that conversations with politically divergent groups of Jews inevitably end with a finger pointed at the other. While one group assigns some responsibility to the other for what many feel is an untenable political climate rife with anti-Semitism and threats to civil liberties, others feel alienated, silenced, misunderstood and in some cases unwelcome in the Jewish communal conversation.

This is a degenerative condition that, if not addressed, threatens to produce irreparable divisions and deep scars within our Jewish community. While the problem may be easily identified, it is not easily solved. As I have listened to members of our community discuss their deteriorating relationships with fellow Jews of differing political stripes, I’ve heard reports of friends no longer being able to make eye contact with each other and decades-long relationships evaporating into a haze of ideological disagreement. I’ve spoken with members of the Jewish community who now feel uncomfortable in synagogues and other Jewish settings, as well as with those on both ends of the political spectrum who feel that Jews of the opposite persuasion have endangered us all and thus have somehow forfeited their identities as members of the People Israel.

These troubling reports do not tell the whole story, as common ground still exists on which Jews with differing viewpoints can and do stand together. For example, the federation’s recent forum on immigrants’ rights and refugee resettlement drew a politically diverse audience that walked away educated, engaged, and empowered. We received positive feedback from progressive and politically conservative Jews alike, all of whom appreciated the opportunity to learn about and discuss an issue that is relevant to all of us.

Similarly, the federation’s New Mexico Jewish Demographic study, published in 2015, indicated that nearly 90% of New Mexico’s Jewish population feels a connection to the State of Israel and a commitment to its survival as the Jewish homeland. This data point is supported by positive feedback and ideologically diverse attendance at last year’s New Mexico-Israel Economic Forums, our Student Forum on Israel, and at last month’s appearances by Ambassador Dennis Ross in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Disagreement is healthy, can be intellectually stimulating, and is an important characteristic of any functional community. However, if we are unwilling to accept our diversity in all its forms, including ideological, then we are doomed to retreat into factions and echo chambers laced with suspicion, distrust, and at worst, hate between fellow Jews. We cannot allow our Jewish community to fall victim to irreversible political divisions. Rather, we must unite in those areas where common ground exists and accept each other as Jews, even if we find the perspectives of some to be abhorrent. If we alienate each other, we do so at our own peril. After all, should our existence as a people someday be once again threatened, the persecutors will not distinguish between one Jew and another based on the contents of her or his ballot.

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