Sep 23, 2011

Dr. Alex Sinclair in JPost: "Israel engagement is Israel’s responsibility too"

Israel engagement is Israel's responsibility too
Dr. Alex Sinclair is the Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He directs Kesher Hadash, the semester-in- Israel program of JTS's Davidson School of Education.

Most Israel engagement programs are rooted in one core underlying assumption: that American Jewish identity and life are in some way incomplete without, or at the very least can be enriched by, a relationship with Israel and Israelis. According to this assumption, the problem of Israel engagement is located entirely within the American Jewish context, and it is there that the worldwide Jewish community's efforts must be directed in order to fix the problem. American Jews are brought to Israel in order to be inspired and become connected; Israelis are sent to the United States in order to educate and inspire young Americans at summer camps; and educational researchers probe the extent to which Americans do or don't feel connected to Israel.

I certainly agree – wholeheartedly! – that engagement with Israel and Israelis has the potential to enrich American Jewish identity. However, that's only half the story, and our exclusive focus on that single assumption explains much of the malaise in Israel engagement, and in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.

The other half of the story is that the responsibility for Israel engagement lies not only with American Jewry, but also with Israeli Jewry.

Let me highlight the problem with the following vignette. A senior Israeli academic recently bemoaned to me the disconnect between American Jews and Israel. "Why do you think American Jews don't feel connected to Israel?," she asked me. "Is it their lack of Jewish education, the fact that they don't speak Hebrew, they prefer to assimilate and be American, not Jewish... why don't they want to have a relationship with this country?" 

At no point in the conversation did she pause to wonder if perhaps Israel played some part in the disconnect. There was no soul-searching along the lines of "what is it about us that has led them to disconnect?"

In this professor's eyes, the problem of Israel engagement was entirely an American issue. Her attitude is not unique – it is shared by most of those who educate, research and write about Israel engagement. The singlelocation assumption is one of the main reasons that rabbinical, cantorial and education students who spend extended periods of time in Israel often end up feeling ambivalent toward it. They are expected to buy into this assumption, and to go back to the US and "sell Israel" to their communities, whose members are not engaging with Israel as much as they "should be." But while they are here, they experience moments of disconnection, and the single-location approach offers no conceptual foundation for integrating that disconnect into their approach to Israel engagement.

EVEN THE best recent thinking about Israel engagement does not go far enough. The felicitous phrase "hugging and wrestling," coined by my colleague Robbie Gringras, still assumes that the primary location of the problem is with American Jews, and how they relate to Israel. The notion of hugging and wrestling has been an important contribution to the field; but now we need to go further, and broaden the horizons of what we mean by Israel engagement in the first place.

Israel engagement must change from being a single-location problem to being a dual-location problem.

We need to develop a second core assumption in Israel engagement: it's not only American Jews' responsibility that they don't relate to Israel; it's also Israel's responsibility. Note the "not only... also" construction: this position is not a denial of the problematic elements of American Jewish identity and education, nor of the responsibility of the American Jewish community to do more to inspire its congregants to take on Jewish rituals, learn Jewish texts, speak Hebrew and explore Israeli culture. This position's new claim is, though, that Israel engagement must also be rooted in the consideration of Israel's part in the disconnect.

There are at least three major areas of Israeli identity, society and culture that play their part in the disconnect between Israel and American Jews: egalitarianism, universalism and meaning- oriented Judaism.

Firstly, Israeli Judaism is much less egalitarian than American Judaism, and that causes many liberal American Jews, especially, ironically, the more committed ones, to feel disconnected from Israel. Until now, Israel engagement, rooted as it is in the single-location approach, has had no response to this problem. Our responses are usually limited to having American Jews try to just accept that Israel is a more traditional society, and brush aside their egalitarian commitments.

Instead, the Israel engagement agenda needs to turn to Israelis, and open the conversation about Jewish egalitarianism. This doesn't mean that Israelis need to change, and here American Jews may need to lower their expectations: Israeli Judaism, for all kinds of reasons, is not going to suddenly change. But Israelis do have to understand just how core the principle of egalitarianism is to the current generation of young American Jewish leaders, and just how much Israelis' dismissal of Jewish egalitarianism is not just a slap in the face, but a blow to the soul. Israeli society needs a process of political and social education that will advocate respect for women rabbis, genuine and open curiosity about egalitarian Judaism, and a willingness to seek compromises for American Jews in a variety of Jewish religious sites.

I AM under no illusions about the enormous barriers to these processes of political and social education in both the secular and religious communities. Nevertheless, anyone concerned with Jewish peoplehood and Israel engagement must put American Jews and Israelis in conversation together in order to raise these issues. This is the innovation that is offered by seeing Israel engagement as a duallocation issue: the egalitarian issue, rather than being gently side-stepped, or embarrassingly swept under the table, instead becomes a front-and-center component of activities and programs.

The second area of disconnect between American Jews and Israeli society is universalism. Some commentators argue that American Judaism has swung too far in a universalist direction. Others claim that Israeli Judaism has swung too far towards particularism, nationalism and tribalism. The dual-location approach sees the problem as two-fold: both an overlyuniversalist American Jewishness and an overly- tribalist Israeli Jewishness. Israel engagement that flows out of the dual-location approach will ask both groups, in conversation together, to reflect critically about each community's place on this spectrum.

Thirdly, liberal American Jews are used to seeing Judaism as a source of spiritual, existential, or cultural meaning. Now, to be sure, this is a double-edged sword. For every committed Jew whose life is invested in meaning through engagement with Judaism, there is another (or more) who drifts from Jewish engagement because "I don't find it personally meaningful."

In Israel, Judaism is less often seen as a source of personal meaning; observant Israeli Jews tend to observe Jewish law for other theological and sociological reasons, and, while there has in the past decade been an awakening of various Jewish renewal movements amongst so-called secular Jews, there is still a long way to go. Israelis can learn a lot from American Jews about meaning-oriented Judaism; and American Jews can be enriched by such a conversation too, especially by Israelis' insistence that personal meaning can be achieved along with, and through, commitment to the Jewish collective.

These three issues – egalitarianism, universalism and meaning-oriented Judaism – are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other important conversations to be had between Israelis and American Jews. Israeli and American Jewish educational and communal leaders must re-imagine Israel engagement so that it pushes American Jews and Israelis together, each asking how they might enrich, and be enriched by, the other. A dual-location approach, in which each side may "influence and be influenced," may yet help us figure out the Israel engagement puzzle, and reduce the disconnect – in both directions – between young American Jewish leaders and Israel.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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