Palo Alto conference focuses on Zionism, Jewish identity

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The relationship between Israel and the United States, and between Israeli and American Jews, is entering a new phase with far-reaching implications for the future of Zionism and of Jewish identity.

That was one of the major themes at Zionism 3.0, a conference organized by the Israeli daily Haaretz Nov. 22 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. More than 750 people showed up to hear top-tier political journalists including the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Haaretz’s chief editor Aluf Benn, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and columnist-author Peter Beinart discuss Israel’s place in the emerging world order, and what that means for the diaspora as well as the Middle East.

“We have a lot of divergent opinions here today, and we need to be respectful of that,” said Zack Bodner, the JCC’s executive director, adding that he “vehemently disagrees with” some of the invited speakers, but that “the theme of the day is ‘passionate civility.’ ”

Speakers did indeed represent a wide spectrum of political perspectives. Israel’s fiery new deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, outlined her vision of a Greater Israel that does not involve any further Israeli withdrawals, while the left-leaning Beinart held forth on the desperate plight of Palestinians living under occupation in a session on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement moderated by J. senior writer Dan Pine.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto photo/tom liu-courtesy ofjcc

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prognosis was sober.

Acknowledging that there will be no progress in negotiations before a new U.S. administration takes over in early 2017, many of the speakers said the only way forward must involve regional partners, i.e. the moderate Arab states, rather than the current model of bilateral talks moderated by the United States.

“What we hear from our partners in Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia is that the two-state solution is a dead idea because it’s based on the notion that Israel and the Palestinians will agree to it,” said Koby Huberman, co-founder of the Israeli Peace Initiative Group, which engages in “quiet diplomacy with the Arab world,” according to its website.

“We need a new paradigm,” he said. “A two-state solution is only possible within a regional context” he said, noting that Likud leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have adopted the language of “a regional context,” a phrase they would not have used a year ago.

Yet neither the Arab world nor the United States is particularly eager to take the lead role, several speakers said. It’s as if everyone is worn out by the decades of failed attempts.

Noting that he recently returned from a security conference in Abu Dhabi, Goldberg said, “No one cares about the Palestinians anymore. They used to give them lip service. Not anymore. They’re too busy fighting for the survival of their own regimes.”

Not only that, he continued, but President Barack Obama, whom he’s been covering for more than a decade, is showing signs of Mideast fatigue, “and he’s not an outlier, but an indicator” of general American weariness with the issue.

“It’s no secret that America, not just the president, would like to put the Middle East and its problems in the rearview mirror,” he said.

Until now, America’s interest in the region was based on two things: oil — and we’re now moving toward energy independence, he noted — and protecting Israel, which is “rooted in ideology” and thus mutable.

“When the U.S. decides it’s had enough of the Mideast,” which will happen in the near future, he warned, “the Israel-U.S. relationship will only survive if Americans look at Israel and see it resembles their own country … and not just another dysfunctional Mideast state.”

Other speakers picked up on the same theme: The best way for Israel to ensure close relations with the White House and with American Jewry is by strengthening its democracy and protecting liberal values.

And the best way for American Jews to ensure that the next generation will love Judaism and Israel, said Beinart, is “to give kids a good Jewish education.” That means one grounded in Jewish values and tradition, but also one that encourages openness and self-criticism.

Even the most Jewishly engaged young American Jews are “more critical” of Israel than their parents’ generation, he said, and that avenue of questioning should not be shut down “or they will be alienated.”

“Younger Jews have never experienced large-scale aliyah because of anti-Semitism, so for them the question of why we need a Jewish state is not self-evident,” he opined.

Just as important to the future of Israeli-diaspora relations as Jewish education abroad is Jewish education within Israel, said Ruth Calderon, a former Knesset member and now research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

The ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab populations are increasing in numbers and in political power, she said, which bodes ill for liberal, democratic values. At the same time, however, she sees a “renaissance of Jewish pluralism in Israel,” as more young secular Israelis Jews are exploring their Jewish heritage.

And the political leadership is falling in line, she said, with Netanyahu recently speaking of the need for greater pluralism in Israel. That can only strengthen Israel’s Jewish character, she said, as more so-called secular Israelis look to merge the best of Jewish and democratic values.

“Young Israelis no longer accept the black-and-white separation between secular and religious” that has characterized Israeli society since 1948, she said, adding somewhat tongue-in-check that “Judaism is too precious to be left only to the Orthodox, or only to Israel.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].