What’s next for Zionism? Keeping the conversation going

Yossi Klein Halevi called it the best conversation on Zionism at any conference he’d attended.

The Israeli American journalist and coexistence activist was referring to Zionism 3.0, an all-day event last weekend at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Some three dozen Israeli and American scholars, rabbis, journalists and political leaders spent seven hours on Sept. 18 talking about the synergy and disconnect between their communities’ visions for the Jewish future. Their conversations — at times provocative, at other times alarming — were full of insights that come from being deeply involved in what one panelist called “the most fascinating project in Jewish history,” the evolution of Jewish life in Israel.

“To some extent, misunderstanding and conflict are unavoidable in our relationship,” Halevi said, addressing the crowd of some 750 attendees.

He enumerated some of the differences: Israeli society is militarized, while few American Jews have military experience; American Jews are largely white-collar, while most Israelis are blue-collar; American Jewish pluralism is denominational, while Israel’s is ethnic; Israel’s strategy for survival requires it to be tough, while American Jews have chosen flexibility.

“For all of that, we are two communities fated to remain in intimate relations,” he concluded. “We need to make space for reciprocal critique, from a place of love.”

The JCC’s chief executive, Zack Bodner, said last year’s inaugural Zionism conference was organized at the behest of Jewish community leaders concerned about discord created by the Iran nuclear deal. “We needed to be able to argue and debate like family, but with civility,” he said.

(From left) Zack Bodner, CEO of the Palo Alto JCC, moderates a panel discussion with Daniel Gordis, Gidi Grinstein and Yehuda Kurtzer. photo/courtesy ofjcc

Bodner, refering to three distinct eras, said Zionism 1.0, which lasted until the establishment of Israel in 1948, represented “the hope of the Jewish people,” while Zionism 2.0, from 1948 until the start of the 21st century, represented the reality of Jewish sovereignty. He said Jewish thought leaders are now “looking for a new paradigm” for the ever-evolving relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

Conference speakers suggested various new models throughout the day.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said the “family” narrative was no longer helpful in understanding the Israeli-American Jewish connection, adding that the two peoples are “mutual descendants of a shared ancestor” who have much to teach each other about living Jewishly in the modern world.

“American Jews invented the idea of Jewish pluralism, which they gave to Israel,” he said, “and Israel offers us a template for how to be Jewish in public.”

Several sessions tackled the question of how involved American Jews should be in Israeli decision-making.

Princeton University professor Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, said that while security decisions rightly belong to Israeli leaders, “Israel would be well advised to pay more attention to what American Jews say” on topics such as civil rights and religious pluralism, bowing to the Americans’ long history of involvement in these areas.

“We need Israeli Jews to stop thinking of us as shtetl Jews, as the galut,” he said, using the Hebrew term for diaspora.

Einat Wilf, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and one-time foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres, spoke of how the Israeli mindset has evolved vis-à-vis diaspora Jews.

“I was raised in the ’90s to believe good Jews make aliyah,” she said. “Or give money — a lot — and feel guilty about not making aliyah.”

Today, with Israeli and American Jews moving often and easily between the two countries, she said, “It doesn’t make sense to judge each other in terms that no longer fit our lives.”

She suggested a new paradigm of American Jews making Israel, if not their first, at least their second home. “Visit Israel, make networks, learn Hebrew,” she counseled.

Israelis by and large have moved away from the earlier “Israel first” mindset. “Zionism is an evolving nationalist movement,” said Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv. “It used to mean sitting on a stool and milking cows. Now it means insisting that the R&D department of your company remain in Israel when the company is acquired by Google.”

Offering a new Zionist paradigm centered on Jewish efforts to better the world — the traditional value of tikkun olam bolstered by Israeli technological prowess — would be a rich focus for the future Israel-diaspora relationship, Grinstein suggested.

“We actually have the potential in our hands to be a massive source of good in the world,” he said.

Although politics was not the conference’s focus, the occupation did come up, if obliquely.

Daniel Gordis, founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, said American Jews “spend too much time looking at Israel through the lens of occupation and the rabbinate,” referring in the latter instance to American Jewish support for religious pluralism in Israel.

“Those are not the things Israel is,” he said. “Israel is the soul, the yearning, the questioning about what being Jewish really means.” Explore Israeli culture, music and literature, he urged — cement the connection through shared creativity and intellectual pursuits.

But panelists in a session on engaging millennials said that’s beside the point.

“The Jewish community says that young Jews who are alienated from Israel are either uninformed or unengaged, but they feel alienated because of Israel’s policies, especially the occupation,” said Yoav Schaefer, who works in his family’s philanthropic fund. And when American Jewish institutions don’t make room for their voices, “They feel doubly alienated, from Israel and from these institutions.”

What the Jewish establishment should realize, speakers said, is that many young Jews want to engage with Israel — they just want every subject to be on the table.

“Zionism has always been aspirational,” said Libby Lenkinski, vice president of public engagement for the New Israel Fund. “For young people especially, Zionism means talking about the problems. Finding ways for them to engage that can contribute, in positive ways, to social change, equality, freedom — there are thousands of Israelis working to make life better. Providing an on-ramp to that connection” is how American Jewish institutions can best guarantee young Jewish engagement.

“Israel is still an unfinished project,” added Schaefer. “What’s so exciting is that there’s a real struggle going on for the soul of Israel. I want to be a part of that.”

Sue Fishkoff

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