(From left) Michael Koplow, Laura E. Adkins and Haviv Rettig Gur at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11,2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)
(From left) Michael Koplow, Laura E. Adkins and Haviv Rettig Gur at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11,2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)

Israeli politics take center stage at Z3 Conference

Israel’s recent election outcome establishing the country’s most right-wing government ever and putting Benjamin Netanyahu back in power as prime minister was a major point of conversation and concern at Sunday’s eighth annual Z3 Conference.

“We can’t ignore it,” Rabbi Amitai Fraiman, director of the Z3 project, said of the election outcome. “The best we can do is contextualize it.”

The daylong event on Dec. 11 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto was themed around reimagining Jewish peoplehood in the diaspora and Israel, and coming together despite differences. It drew approximately 800 in-person attendees and also was streamed online. 

Breakout sessions ran the gamut of topics. Tye Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, moderated a discussion with three panelists from different perspectives — a Palestinian, an Israeli and an American who immigrated to Jerusalem — about the ways they’re leading grassroots efforts to promote peaceful dialogue and education between Arabs and Israelis. Sue Fishkoff, J.’s editor emerita, led a conversation with two ultra-religious women who have climbed the ladder of professional success while also leading full personal lives.

(From left) Sue Fishkoff, Rachel Freier and Rivka Ravitz at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11, 2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)
(From left) Sue Fishkoff, Rachel Freier and Rivka Ravitz at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11, 2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)

The long list of other sessions included topics such as Israeli comedy, Jewish culinary exploration and antisemitism on college campuses.

One of the most popular sessions, with 120 attendees, was a conversation between Haviv Rettig Gur, Times of Israel senior analyst, and Michael Koplow, chief policy officer of Israel Policy Forum, moderated by Laura E. Adkins, Forward opinion editor. The two political experts weighed in on the impacts Israel’s new government could have on the prospect of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The Jewish left is gone,” Gur said, adding that Israel’s left-wing Labor party has fewer seats than two Arab parties in the Knesset. “These parties aren’t talking about peace.”

Koplow agreed, adding that American Jews are going to be frustrated that the narrative around Israel has changed with the reshaped government.

“The American Jewish narrative about Israel always being pro-peace and right will change,” Koplow said. “That’s not in the new administration.”

“This conversation was the best part of this conference,” said Larry Stone, a Santa Cruz resident and dual Israeli citizen, about Gur and Koplow’s talk. His partner, Leta Miller, said she’s been concerned about Israel’s new government and was eager for insight.

We always love our family, even when we don’t like them.

Learning more about Israel’s election results was what Judy Aptekar of Los Altos Hills was most looking forward to at Z3, her fourth time attending.

“I like the diversity of speakers,” Aptekar said of the opening plenary, which included a keynote speech by Roya Hakakian, an Iranian Jewish author and founding member of the U.S.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, and words from Marco Sermoneta, Israel’s S.F.-based consul general.

“It’s important to see our Jewishness through the eyes of the other,” Zack Bodner, the president and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC, said in his opening remarks. The intention of Z3 (the first conference in 2015 was titled “Zionism 3.0”) is to honor Jewish “unity, not uniformity,” as well as the differences in Jewish practice across cultures and denominations.

A new Jewish identity survey by JCRC found an interesting dichotomy in that 89% of Bay Area Jews believe that “Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” while only a third of respondents said they are “generally comfortable with the Israeli government’s policies related to Palestinians.”

Supporting Israel as a Jewish state while simultaneously criticizing its government, Bodner said, was similar to the dynamics found in families, noting that one’s imperfections cannot be the sole focus of a healthy relationship.

“We always love our family,” Bodner said in his remarks, “even when we don’t like them.” 

MK Matan Kahana and moderator Janine Zacharia at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11, 2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)
MK Matan Kahana and moderator Janine Zacharia at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto, Dec. 11, 2022. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)

Can a North American Jew still identify as pro-Israel if they criticize the Israeli government? Moderator Janine Zacharia, a veteran Middle East reporter and now Stanford  lecturer posed this question to Matan Kahana, who served as Israel’s minister of religious services in Naftali Bennett’s coalition government and is a Knesset member for the newly formed centrist National Unity Party.

“Yes,” Kahana said. “It’s OK to criticize the government and still love Israel.”

Kahana, who delivered the conference’s closing keynote speech, shared that even he had concerns about the new government, which now has extremist politicians who denounce same-sex marriage and women’s rights.

“Any thoughts on advancing peace?” Zacharia asked Kahana, adding that Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, is 87, and his eventual death could pose new opportunities.

“No,” Kahana replied resolutely, adding that trying for a two-state solution has led to bloodshed in the past, and his goal is to reduce tensions, not exacerbate them.

“Maybe in a generation or two my grandkids will live in peace,” Kahana said. “But right now I don’t see a solution.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.