Talking about complex issues facing Israel, diaspora Jews

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Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, will serve as North Peninsula scholar-in-residence for 10 days starting on Monday, Feb. 9. He will give 12 public talks at six venues.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman photo/youtube

Hartman is the son of Shalom Hartman Institute founder Rabbi David Hartman, a Brooklyn-born Jewish professor and phil-osopher who promoted a liberal brand of Orthodoxy and was committed to Jewish pluralism. He died two years ago at 81.

Donniel made aliyah with his family two months after his bar mitzvah and before the Yom Kippur War. He has followed in his father’s footsteps as a Modern Orthodox voice for a nuanced understanding of Jewish identity, and is also the director of the institute’s 4-year-old iEngage Project.

The Shalom Hartman Institute, and its arm in North America, addresses societal challenges facing contemporary Jews in Israel and the diaspora through research, ideas-based study, leadership training and dialogue.

Hartman spoke with J. from Jerusalem.

J.: Let’s talk about Israel and the need for a “new conversation” — the topic of your first lecture on Monday, Feb. 9. How can such a conversation unite us rather than divide us?

Donniel Hartman: The core feature is that we have to talk about not just Israel as it is — which then becomes a factual debate that nobody ever winds up winning — but instead talk about the Israel we want. Part of the relationship with Israel, like any relationship with any living being or organization, is being invested and fighting for what you want, even if you must disagree with an aspect of it.

Unfortunately, too many Jews believe the way for Israel to garner support among [diaspora] Jews is to get them to agree with its policy and then factually debate it. To be a lover of Israel is not just to stand by Israel, but also to agree with Israel. That’s not possible for many people. Many Jews, if that’s their choice, they’ll simply walk away. We need to create a framework: What does sovereignty mean? What are the challenges? The opportunities? What kind of Israel do you want? I say, “Welcome to the story. Welcome to the fight.”

It took us 60-plus years to create an Israel that is physically secure. It will take us another 50 to 60 years to create the Israel we want. Generations of people are simply checking out and leaving; advocacy doesn’t work with them. Advocacy is meant as a political tool to give people their talking points; it doesn’t shape an identity. The relationship with Israel has to be part of people’s identity. We need to create a place for people to talk about Israel, but not a “left wing” or a “right wing” place.

J.: How has Israeli society changed since Operation Protective Edge? What challenges and opportunities do you see in Israel after last summer’s war in Gaza?

DH: I believe Israeli society has changed. Part of it is due to the fact that Israelis feel much more vulnerable than they felt in the past. Hamas has succeeded in finding a weapon of terror, and they are able to produce and deliver something that could basically shut down a large part of Israeli society.

In the past, an individual suicide bomber’s casualties could be greater but the effect nationally was much smaller. No country would allow its people to be exposed to a missile barrage, so in addition, Hamas gets to dictate policy. When you have a sense of frustration and vulnerability, it also leads to anger. Anger leads to a much deeper alienation and distancing from Palestinians and Palestinian causes than ever before.

I’m an educator. My job is to try to put conversation, language, narratives on the table. The state of Israel can’t be a normal state. We as Jews can’t allow ourselves to have the fear and vulnerability that lead to anger and lead us to be alienated from who we want to be. We have to talk. We have to reach. We can’t become frustrated if there isn’t an immediate response.

My father said, “If you want to fix something, don’t go into education, go into plumbing.” Education is about planting seeds. I don’t want to let a certain narrative define who we are. A growing number of Jews in North America are wondering, “Where are Jewish values in Israel?” When they see the government’s resolutions about the non-equality of non-Jewish citizens, they say, “What are you talking about? I’m not going there.” I don’t care which position you have, how are you making sure Jewish values of the highest level are defining who you are, so that nationalism doesn’t unleash a toxic cocktail detrimental to Israel?

J.: How does the idea of Jewish exceptionalism relate to Israel?

DH: We need to understand that a key part of Jewish identity has always been to walk alone. We don’t look to the left or the right to define what Jews should do. What Jews should do is what we think it is worthy of a Jew to do.

That doesn’t mean we’re superior. Exceptionalism means we have a standard that we believe we have to walk by. We weren’t always the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most numerous. We changed the world because we set a standard for ourselves, and pushed.

[Jews] did not return to Israel to become another Middle Eastern state. People say, “Look at what [Syrian president Bashar] Assad did. Look how many people America killed with its drones.”

I say, “Since when did Jews accept other standards as theirs?” How do we create a state that pushes itself to exceptionalism but is still able to survive?

Moral excellence is the use of power in the most careful and judicial and moral fashion. That’s not an anti-Israel sentiment. That’s what makes Israel important. That’s what Zionism is about. An Israel that strives to work in that fashion is one that will be militarily the strongest.


Rabbi Donniel Hartman’s schedule

Foster City

Feb. 9. “Talking About Israel: The Need for a New Conversation.” Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, 800 Foster City Blvd. 7 p.m. Preregistration required. (650) 212-7522.

Feb. 11. “The Dilemmas of Jewish Power.” Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd. 2 p.m. Preregistration required. (650) 212-7522.

Feb. 11. “Models of Jewish Identity: Israel and North America.” Wornick Jewish Day School. 7 p.m. (650) 378-2600.

Feb. 13. “Jewish Narratives of Peace.” Peninsula Sinai Congregation, 499 Boothbay Ave. 7:30 p.m. following Shabbat service. (650) 349-2816.

Feb. 14. “Israel and the World.” Peninsula Sinai Congregation. 1:30 p.m. (650) 349-2816.

Feb. 14. “Israel and the Idea of Jewish Exceptionalism.” Peninsula Sinai Congregation. Havdallah and wine and dessert reception at 6:30 p.m., lecture at 7 p.m. (650) 349-2816.



Feb. 12. “Israel after Gaza: New Challenges and Opportunities.” Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive. 7 p.m. (650) 697-2266.

Feb. 18. “A Jewish Narrative of War.” Peninsula Temple Sholom. 11 a.m. (650) 697-2266.


Redwood City

Feb. 15. “Jewish Spirit and the Challenges of War.” Congregation Beth Jacob, 1550 Alameda de las Pulgas. 7 p.m. (650) 366-8481.

Feb. 16. “Israel’s Declaration of Independence: A Model for a Jewish and Democratic State.” Congregation Beth Jacob. 10:30 a.m. (650) 366-8481.


San Mateo

Feb. 17. “State and Religion and the Israeli Supreme Court.” Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de las Pulgas. Noon. (650) 341-7701.

Feb. 18. “Jewish Sovereignty: A Values Nation.” Peninsula Temple Beth El. 7 p.m. (650) 341-7701.

The North Peninsula Jewish Community Scholar-in-Residence Program is funded primarily by the Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture as part of the Initiative on Jewish Peoplehood. All of the lectures are free. For more details on lecture topics, visit or contact the individual venue.