As The Fragile Dialogue explores, Israel has quickly become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish Community. There are those who remain curious and committed, wanting to remain connected in some meaningful way. There are those who have effected a divorce, asserting Israel has no place in their lives. And there are those who are ambivalent, filled with questions, not sure what they think and feel. Many would consider the last two categories a failure in cultivating a passionate connection to Israel. I disagree. It seems to me that any conversation about Israel that engages people in open, honest exploration of issues and expression of questions and concerns is an educational success.
Our inability to articulate a compelling vision for Israel education may lie in our unwillingness to accept the inherent ambiguity in our stance toward Israel. Rather than embrace this ambiguity, we seek to harmonize and instrumentalize Israel so that it fits with the not-so-hidden curriculum of American Jewish education, which is, in essence, how to function as an American Jew. Inasmuch as Israel education can be used as a way to reinforce American Jewish identity, it is viewed as a positive. This has resulted in a “mythic” representation of Israel that, as Jonathan Sarna pointed out, has, “for well over a century . . . revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.” Jewish education has reinforced this idealization of Israel to a great extent so that Israel can remain consistent with American conceptions of “Zion as it ought to be.” This means that we keep Israel at a distance through episodic and rather superficial encounters. We teach old conceptions and old narratives about Israel, because they are “safe” and because we don’t know what else to do. Indeed, it seems that a tacit assumption is made that only by first cultivating an uncritical “love of Israel” can we hope to engage American Jews at all.
To be sure, approaches that cultivate love can be effective for some. For increasing numbers, however, such approaches lead to dissonance, alienation, anger, and outright rejection, especially when they come to realize the mythic vision of Israel they were taught is vastly different from the much more complicated and often distressing reality. And, teaching only the “lovable” parts leaves our learners with, at best, a superficial understanding of why Israel is or could be significant in American Jewish life.
I want to propose that we accept the fact that being ambivalent about Israel is a productive educational goal. This may be unsettling for some, but it is far from a novel idea. Almost a century ago, the great Hebrew poet and writer Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that “the phenomenon of dualism in our psyche [is] a fundamental characteristic of the Jewish people.” This dualism is not a black-and-white choice between opposing forces, but rather a formative tension that allows for productive negotiation and growth. This kind of dualism is woven throughout Jewish life, belief, and practice, with manifold tensions between Zion and Sinai, sacred and profane, Israel and Diaspora, exile and redemption, religion and peoplehood, blessing and curse. Bialik claimed that the desire both to expand from the center and to contract toward it is what has kept Judaism and the Jewish people a dynamic and thriving civilization. “Because the people did not tie its fate to one of these and because they remained in equal power, the rule of this dualism in our group character has survived to this day.”
Translating a “nuanced understanding of Israel” into educational practice is a multilayered process that could start even with how the geography of Israel is taught. What maps are displayed on the walls? Do they mark the Green Line? Do we teach only about Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, or do we also include units on Kfar Kana, Um el Fahm, and Sakhnin? Do we focus only on the kibbutzim of the north or also teach that 50 percent of the population of the Galilee is Muslim, Christian, or Druze? When we plan a mifgash (encounter) with Israelis, whether virtual or real, do we include meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel or only Jews? Does our investigation of social justice initiatives in Israel extend only to issues of religious pluralism that pertain directly to Reform Jews, or do we also study about educational and/or social justice organizations that are striving to attain a shared citizenship across religious, ethnic, and political differences?
These are just a few of the questions worth considering when thinking about developing an intentionally ambivalent educational approach to teaching Israel. Embracing this ambivalence does not preclude me, however, from starting with the chutzpadik claim that Israel is integral to Jewish life wherever it is lived. That sets a boundary that is clear but also flexible. For me, Israel is a key dimension of what it means to be a Jew. Like the Psalmist, I believe that forgetting Israel can be likened to losing the use of a limb. One can still live without one’s right hand, but the loss is an attenuation, a diminishment, far from desirable. But, this chutzpah is tempered with a lot of humility. Understanding Israel as integral but not central allows for and even endorses a range of different personal commitments and connections. Israel as integral means that there is no one right way or one right level of intensity to be connected. Just as with every other aspect of Jewish life, Israel education can provide individuals with the resources and experiences to become informed and then make their own choices as to the nature and extent of their involvement. Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and Shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience. Just as educators strive to help Jews find meaning in God, Torah, and Shabbat and cultivate the motivation, knowledge, or skills that enable them to be develop their own set of practices, so should they work to help Jews engage with Israel, each on their own terms, yet as part of the collective Jewish project.
What this means is that we must accept that our communities can and need to welcome a wide range of views, understandings, feelings, and actions about Israel. This seems all the more pressing and essential today in order to build thriving Jewish life and to sustain a relationship with and connection to Israel. It means having faith and hope in the Jewish people, that expressing our differences will help us to listen more carefully to each other with open hearts, knowing that the choices we make build us up, enrich us, and allow Jewish life to continue to thrive in a multiplicity of ways.
Rabbi Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available to pre-order from CCAR Press.
Working in Jewish education for over 25 years, I have had countless opportunities to explore ways to teach and experience Modern Israel. And, most recently, I spent two intensive years working with Professor Ken Stein at the Center for Israel Education (CIE), an organization associated with the Institute for Modern Israel at Emory University. I had the pleasure and challenge of working with Ken and a couple of other educators developing workshops and curricular materials focused on methodologies for teaching Modern Israel. So, I explained to this young student and his classmates, that the answer is a little complicated, to say the least.
In the past six years, I’ve also shifted from occasional participation in interfaith programs to undertaking a major role in my community as an interfaith leader. I sit on the board of Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. I have been a guest speaker at rallies, vigils, city council meetings and seminars, and I’ve been blessed to be on the leadership team of several interfaith trips comprised of Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims as we forge close and meaningful friendships.
And, yet the intersection between my work life at CIE and my avocation as an interfaith leader is rare. It’s clear to me, as I imagine it is to many of my rabbinic colleagues, that the single most challenging topic of discussion for liberal faith leaders and lay people is that of Modern Israel. Israel is often a deal breaker in interfaith relations, or at the very least it’s the elephant in the room as it was on my visit to Georgia Tech. It can be awkward and emotional to bring up the painful aspects that emerged as we sought, build, and as we support and sustain the Modern Jewish state. However, I can say, that as difficult as the topic is, I strive to be honest and forthright with my closest interfaith friends. They are willing to hear me. And, I am willing to hear them. Because we have come to deeply trust one another. And because we know how each of us strives for similar principles and ideals of human behavior, it is possible to broach challenging conversations.
I am grateful for the insightful essays that tackle the struggles for liberal Jews on Israel in the upcoming CCAR publication The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices in Liberal Zionism. It will surely provide all of us with new considerations and also fresh ways to express ourselves as modern Zionists.
I also firmly believe that the insight and experience we can gain from the upcoming CCAR-sponsored interfaith clergy trip to Israel from January 28 through February 3, 2018 will be invaluable. I am confident that the intimate alliances formed with travel buddies yield a deep trust and friendship that opens the possibility of discussing the most challenging of topics. We have so much to gain from this opportunity. My hope is that two or three colleagues from various locales along with their interfaith clergy colleagues will form teams that can explore Modern Israel together on the ground. Then, upon their return will continue the discussions and embark on learning modules for their respective communities, teaching other colleagues in their area how to approach dialogue about Israel amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other faith groups. Our world and God are crying out for us to find partners with whom to bring about the deep friendships and greater understanding that are necessary and will provide the foundation for lasting peace. In preparation for this sacred work, I hope you will invite your interfaith colleagues to join you on this sacred journey hosted by CCAR staff and members.
Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser is in her second year as Co-President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Most recently, she has worked at The Center for Israel Education at Emory University as a rabbinic fellow, developing and disseminating curriculum for teaching Modern Israel. She has now moved on to be a full-time volunteer in the Interfaith activities in Atlanta, GA.
I grew up in an age when the State of Israel was touted as the panacea for the lost American Jew. We celebrated Yom haAtzmaut as fervently as we celebrated Purim. The most exciting skits put on by our day camp counselors all ended up with the characters realizing they could just go to Israel. It was messaged, both subtly and not-so-subtly, that the greatest move we could make as a Jew was Aliyah. The State of Israel was a modern miracle. I do not remember the word Zionism crossing anyone’s lips, but I was certainly raised a Zionist.
When I ventured to Israel for the first time as a senior in highschool, I came back fully bought into the triumphalist Zionist narrative of the State of Israel as the culmination of all Jewish history; the reclamation of Jewish strength; the realization of Jewish sovereignty, and, soon, in vague whispers, the messiah. Then I went to college in Gambier, OH, and I found that there was another side to the story – a reality of oppression inflicted by the State of Israel upon the Palestinians that wasn’t justifiable.
In search of answers, I returned to Israel for my junior year abroad in 2004-2005, and now off the rails of the high school Israel-as-Disneyland experience, I was free to see a much broader spectrum of Israeli life. Busses exploded blocks from my dorm in Beer Sheva; religious extremists refused to leave their settlements in Gaza, threatening to tear apart the country; Bedouin were rounded up and forcibly settled in the Negev against their will, often in abject poverty. I returned from that experience confused and concerned. Why had I been taught this State was the answer to all my questions about Judaism? What even is Zionism, and do I want anything to do with it?
Dr. Joshua Holo, the dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, writes in the upcoming release from CCAR Press, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, that Zionism “seeks to guarantee Israel’s existence and its Jewish and democratic character…(and) merely reflects the fact that Jews and Judaism are tightly bound up with the Land of Israel.”
Regardless of the inner conflict, the crack at the foundation of my relationship to Israel, I still feel bound up with the Land of Israel. After writing a graduate thesis on the development of secular Israeli identity, and spending my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I am no longer surprised by the disappointments the government of Israel consistently bring me. It no longer hurts when my very Jewish identity is denied authenticity by that same government. My anger no longer burns so strongly at the continued and worsening oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. It has all become old hat, and as predictable as the rest of the Jewish calendar.
Coming from the perspective of a Jewish educator, in her chapter from The Fragile Dialogue titled, “Educating for Ambiguity,” Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grant, writes, “Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience.”
Words are slippery creatures. Jewish tradition has spilled much ink arguing over the definition of one word or another. Once a word referring specifically to the lofty dream of a new nation State for the Jews, upon the accomplishment of this goal it has now spun into a multitude of different amalgamations: Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Classical Zionism, Anti-Zionism – and, as these writers discuss, Liberal Zionism.
I’m not sure if I’m a Liberal Zionist, but I am sure that no matter what I do, the State of Israel is as basic to my daily thoughts as Torah and the Jewish calendar. Although I no longer see the State of Israel as a miracle (just as I no longer think that Moses literally parted the Red Sea), I can not cut the ties that bind me to her. So I must join the conversation, and welcome all the voices, from Religious Zionists to Anti-Zionists, but also be willing to stand and put my own relationship with Israel into words.
During Purim we celebrate the story of the victory of the Jews of Persia over their oppressors, and also look critically, even ashamedly, at the end of the book of Esther in which these same Jews massacre 75,000 of their enemies. If we can manage this confusing and confounding tradition each year, we can celebrate the accomplishments within the contemporary State of Israel, as well as protest the moral failings we see in its government.
Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He has served as the CCAR Rabbinic Intern and is currently the Rabbinic Intern at East End Temple in New York City.
In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.
When I sat with David Ben Gurion in his Tel Aviv apartment in 1973, there was no doubt in “The Old Man’s” mind as to what Zionism was: To come to the Land. To build and to be rebuilt. To create a new Jew and a new Judaism in the Old/New Land. He was bemused by the fact that there was push back from some quarters in the Diaspora. All those ‘Zionists’ had come out to cheer BG in London. But then he boarded his plane to return to Eretz Yisrael, and they returned to the London suburbs. So what’s a Zionist?
And then there was the struggle with Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee. All Israel’s founder had said was that Jews were obligated to settle in Israel. Blaustein strongly protested against this obvious denigration of the Diaspora, so the Blaustein-Ben Gurion Agreement was signed in 1951. Blaustein would support the Zionist enterprise from afar and BG would not (often) criticize that distancing. So what’s a Zionist?
In 1967, it seems that everyone was now a Zionist. Following the victories of the Six-Day War, Jewish volunteers flooded Israel. Youth programs expanded dramatically. Israeli flags flourished on synagogue pulpits across the world. Heschel wrote: Israel, An Echo of Eternity. Soviet Jewry began to flex its muscles. American Jewry was marked by parades, marches and other public events in which our Zionist identities were celebrated with pride.
But with the passing years there were increasing doubts and uncertainties and disappointments. The world was moving away from the fervent nationalisms that described the mid-20th century. Israel became controversial. Some deemed its policy of Occupation to be colonialist or worse. Ethnicity and peoplehood eroded as the individual was increasingly celebrated. More wars. Intifadas. Ethiopian Jews confronted discrimination, as had the Mizrachim before them. As do Israeli Arabs. Reform Judaism was far too often treated as an unwelcome, alien presence. Huge gaps opened up between the very rich and the very poor. Was the bloom off the rose?
The nations of the world increasingly felt free from their burden of responsibility for having incited anti-Semitism over the centuries. But now anti-Semitism was being cloaked in anti-Zionism. And long suppressed arguments burst forth from within world Jewry. Too easily accommodating to new norms for discussion, shouting replaced words; ad hominem insults replaced reasoned disagreement; rage replaced discomfort. We refused to hear anything with which we disagreed. By the second decade of the 21st century, Jews began boycotting Jews over arguments regarding who and what is a ‘good’ Zionist? And whose views were the most likely to guarantee Israel’s security? Battered increasingly from without, we turned on each other.
The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism has the self-assumed role of trying to demonstrate that we Jews must and can learn how to speak with one another about core, existential issues. This book is intended to be a model for Jewish disagreement about the meaning, purposes and goals of Zionism. No more demonization. No more exclusion or banning. Neither Rabbi Englander nor I have any intention of attempting to define right answers, but only to demonstrate that strongly held positions from within the liberal Jewish community both need to be heard and must be heard.
Does anything go? Frankly, No. Our scholars and teachers had to meet one standard: they are firmly committed to the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and Democratic State.
Some of our authors favor the possibility of a One State Solution. Some favor Two States. Some favor a nuanced imposition of BDS. Some see Israel as a Divine gift. Some reject any claim that Israel is “The beginning of our Redemption.” Some want us to teach Zionism with an embrace of ambiguity; some see the survival of North American Jewry as dependent upon the survival of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State. They all have a place in this book; and they all have a place in our synagogues, campuses, and Jewish organizations. Open wide the umbrella!
Enough banning of Zionist voices with which we are uncomfortable! Hear each other. See each other. Greet each other with respect. Make space so that our children can find their own, unique liberal Zionist voices – without fear of being ostracized.
In recent days, complaints against the Netanyahu Government over the Kotel and over Conversion have made this book even more important. The language of liberal, religious Zionism can give us the power to state our demands while not encouraging even more distancing or, worse, indifference.
The liberal Zionist dialogue is fragile, but we must preserve it. Larry and I have worked with that imperative firmly in mind.
Read as if our future depends upon it. Because it does.
Rabbi Stanley M. Davids serves as rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. He is also a Co-Editor of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now officially available for pre-order from CCAR Press.
In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.
On the occasion of Israel’s 8th anniversary Rav Joseph Soloveitchik gave a series of landmark lectures which were later compiled and called “Kol Dodi Dofek” or “The Voice of my Beloved Hearkens.” This quickly became a seminal document in the canon of Religious Zionism which examines clear manifestations of God’s presence in modern historical events. This visionary rabbi – tasked with the mission to rebuild the Orthodox community in a post-Shoah reality – realized that merely 8 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, we were already seeing a drifting apart between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, Israel and North America. His hope was that these two communities would operate as if they were a person with one body and two heads. Soloveitchik’s argument boiled down is a basic תוכחה (rebuke) or clever commentary on Israeli and American Jewish life that accuses Israelis of being too focused on peoplehood thereby, being weak on Torah values, and American Jews for being weak on peoplehood and mutual responsibility while being overly focused on Religion. His is a statement claiming that the early development of these two polarities could set a course of furthering one from the other and creating an insurmountable metaphoric (and physical) distance between the two communities.
This year, a year of fortuitous and fateful anniversaries, would that we could reflect back upon the Rav’s assessment and thankfully extol how wrong he was. But alas…
120 years since the first World Zionist Congress
100 years since the Balfour Declaration
70 years the UN vote to accept the Partition plan on November 29th
50 years since the Six Day war
40 years since the “מהפך” (the revolutionary moment when Menachem Begin and the Likud rose to power reversing the establishment rule of the Labor party), and the establishment of ARZA(!)
30 years since the first Intifada…
All leading up to the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel which we will celebrate in 5778.
Anniversaries are important, as they mark milestones and offer opportunities for individual and collective heshbon nefesh. They allow to us pause, zoom out and ask ourselves what has happened in the past 100 or 50 years, and whether we have achieved our goals, strayed dangerously from the path of righteousness and justice, or engineer a necessary cause for celebration and affirmation that we fell on the right side of history.
Of all the anniversaries that we mark this year, the Balfour declaration and the Six Day war have been highlighted as the source of discussion, debate and convenient conferencing and teaching. These are important opportunities for engagement with our students, congregants and fellow Jews but we must not let them be used out of context or glorified for more than they are. Use this moment to teach, to read books and evaluate the current situation. Is this moment a cause for celebration? There is no question in my mind that it is. Is this moment a cause for consternation, concern and recognition and that Israel has reached a point of no return, also true? A century after the British Empire awarded us with favour the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” do we not also recognize that Sir Henry McMahon made a similar promise to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca who then saw the Balfour Declaration as a violation of previous agreements made in their correspondence? Do we see the Six Day War only in the light of the miraculous victory that saved the State of Israel from imminent destruction, or do we view this moment as the predicate to the military rule over another people?
The answer, I hope, is “Yes, and…”.
Yes, this is cause for celebration and cause for concern and let us not forget that Zionism is about creating the exemplary society that the pioneers romanticized. It is about liberation, self-determination and creating a society based on the principles of חסד (chesed – loving kindness) and צדק (tzedek – justice), ones that we hope will prevail for the next 50, 70 and 100 years. As our contemporary Zionist leader Anat Hoffman often reminds us, that “love is what remains after we know the truth.” Seek the truth, teach it and preach it, and instill the love that is at the core of who we are and what we do.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and is a contributor to The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.
 Shared Suffering: A logical, and natural, consequence of the awareness of a shared predicament would be a commonality of anguish; the sharing by all Jews of each other’s suffering. To illustrate this point, the Rav utilizes a midrash based upon the discussion of the legacy to which a man with two heads is entitled (based on a parable in BT Menahot 37a).
The situations begs the question that if he should receive two shares, or just one; does he constitute two separate entities inhabiting the same body, or just a single entity with diverse appearances?
Answer: The answer is to have boiling water poured on one of the heads. If it alone cries out in pain, then it is truly separate from the other; if both experience the agony, however, then there is but one.