Judaism Unbound Episode 120: A Less Toxic Conversation - Melissa Weintraub


Dan and Lex are joined by Melissa Weintraub, Founder and Co-Executive Director of Resetting the Table[1] In their conversation they examine ways in which conversations about Israel in Jewish communal life can often become toxic, along with ideas for how to shift that trend moving forward.

(0:01 - 15:53): To begin the episode, Weintraub looks back on the origins of Resetting the Table (RTT), and reflects on societal dynamics that make its work so important. In doing so, she cites a few key studies that inform her work. [2] She then provides an overview of RTT's key audiences, highlighting ways in which her organization facilitates conversations about Israel and Palestine in particular, along with broader discussions around American politics more generally. [3] She also presents a powerful metaphor, relating challenges around distinguishing safety from danger, to auto-immune disorders that fail to discern between that which is harmful and that which is healthy. 

(15:54 - 33:50): Weintraub address a common criticism of dialogue work -- that conversation can become a substitute for concrete action. As she explores that topic, she applies John Paul Lederach's duality of "critical yeast" and "critical mass," demonstrating why dialogue could be understood as an important element of long-term, "critical yeast"-oriented work. [4] She then looks back at her own life, describing her journey into the work of conflict mediation, along with the role that Jewish teachings have played in that journey. She also emphasizes why, in her organizational experience, trained facilitation is a core element of success, while also providing a few helpful ideas for those who would like to help their community create more constructive contexts for conversation about Israel and Palestine. She continues by examining the tension between moral clarity and inclusivity which can arise in many communal contexts, within the Jewish world and outside of it. [5]

(33:51 -- 50:14): An ongoing topic of conversation on Judaism Unbound revolves around forms of Judaism that might resonate deeply with Jews who currently are un-involved in Jewish institutional life. Weintraub explores how her work does often connect with people who are not deeply immersed in Jewish communal organizations, but also why RTT's main focus is on those working within Jewish institutional contexts. She also discusses the increasing role that agitation plays in community organizing strategies, emphasizing that there are moments where it is warranted, but questioning whether it should be seen as a first resort. [6] To close the episode, she explores a topic that has been hotly debated in recent years: the role that "red lines" play in defining the boundaries of discourse about Israel and Palestine.

[1] For Melissa Weintraub's full bio, click here. To learn more about Resetting the Table, visit its Facebook page.

[2] See the following studies for more detailed exploration of how American Jews relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "Israel in the Age of Eminem," by Frank Luntz, "Mapping Israel Education: An Overview of Trends and Issues in North America," by Karen Gerber and Aliza Mazor, "Defining Israel Education," by Bethamie Horowitz, "Shifting Social Networks: Studying the Jewish Growth of Adults in their Twenties and Thirties," by Beth Cousens, and "Safe and on the Sidelines," by Ari Y. Kelman.

[3] Dan cites the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza, comparing communal boundaries around God-belief in the past to analogous boundaries around Israel today. To learn more about Baruch Spinoza's excommunication, click here.

[4] Learn more about Lederach's framework of "critical yeast" and "critical mass" by clicking here.

[5] Lex cites a study about standardized test-taking, that indicated that attempting to argue why each answer could be correct actually led to more accurate responses in test-takers. For a related study, on why changing answers from one's "first instinct" may be beneficial -- despite commonplace assumptions to the contrary -- click here.

[6] In Weintraub's exploration of the role that agitation can play in community organizing, she mentions a campaign called #YouNeverToldMe. For more information about it, click here.