By Robbie Gringras
I have recently returned from an 8 city, 11 flight, 2 weeks’ tour of campuses in North America – with 4 questions.
I was one of the Jewish Agency’s Makom team running full-day workshops on “Gaza, Israel, and the Jews” for the staff of thirty Hillels. Our aim was to empower Hillel and campus leaders to frame constructive conversations about the Gaza Conflict by identifying pertinent questions (rather than institutional answers), and by defining a successful conversation as one that leads to a second conversation…
As always happens in a workshop that is a combination of frontal teaching and dialogical interaction, the entire tour was as illuminating for me as one hopes it was for the participants. Apart from learning that DC taxi drivers are the most interesting in the world, and that United Airlines are not always to be trusted with your luggage, I have been left with a few thoughts to ponder:
1. The conflict attracts institutional attention and repels most students
Incredibly generous donors were able to fund Makom to run a workshop on Gaza for 30 campuses. This amount of money and size of project normally takes months if not years to put together. It was agreed upon in a matter of minutes. This is because Israeli military conflicts, and the conflict perceived on campuses, will always be regarded as an emergency issue. It was an honor and a pleasure to be engaging with Hillel staff and student leadership throughout North America, but at the same time there was a feeling of disconnect. As we learned from most (not all) campuses, the vast majority of Jewish students that Hillels might come into contact with are not interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact the chances are that the best way to repel a Jewish student is to begin a conversation about the conflict.
This might well be because the discourse within the Jewish community about the conflict is so polarized and thin, and that a richer discourse might be more attractive, but the paradoxical concern remains. The more we invest only in the Conflict, the more we risk reducing the number of students voluntarily engaged in Israel.
2. Politics is a toxic word that cannot be extracted from the Israel mix
“Politics” would seem to be a dirty word on most campuses. Whether this is due to the vitriol of the Israeli-Jewish discourse or the polarized US political culture in general, “politics” tends to imply immorality, bloody-mindedness, futility, and never-ending conflict.
Yet Israel without politics – in the broadest sense, not just the Israel-Arab conflict – is difficult to conceive. Politics – ongoing social negotiation about collective power – is at the heart of the Zionist revolution. Everything about Israel – the buildings, the people, the culture, the landscapes – has politics in its circulation.
So when we are told that Jewish students are hoping to avoid “the politics” in their relationship with Israel, and when Hillel professionals aspire to go “beyond the politics”, we at Makom like to believe that the problem is with the connotations of the word, and not due to a desire to strip Israel of what makes Israel real. We choose to hear that a rejection of politics in Israel engagement is an expression of the thirst for the fascinating vibrant multi-vocal Israel that lives beyond the suffocating binaries of good guys vs bad guys.
3. Can Israel be grasped American-style?
There is something about contemporary Israel that will always be somewhat intense, slightly rough-and-ready. Even the most constructive of discussions in Israel can sound like arguments. Which leads to an open question: Can this abrasive energy ever fit with the mainstream North American Jewish student? If we choose to address Israel in ways that are less abrasive, more comfortable, or more culturally acceptable for North American students, do we risk missing the point?
Can we deeply engage with Israel in a non-Israeli way?
While Israelis can be accused by North Americans of being rude, and North Americans assumed fake by Israelis, the situation is richer – and more challenging. We would suggest that in the classic Talmudic conflict between Truth and Peace, Israelis tend to favor Truth at the expense of a quieter life, while North Americans tend to favor Peace even if it means cutting early to snatch a consensus. Neither of these approaches are right or wrong – values conflicts rarely are – but they do beg the question whether holding on to one’s traditional communication values prevent one from appreciating alternative communication values?
In short, can you reach a deep connection with Israel without learning about it “Israeli-style”? Perhaps the style is just as if not more important than the information? As the British author Martin Amis insisted: “I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.”
4. Israel demands, and cannot always receive, time
The workshops we offered were time-consuming for hard-working and committed campus staff. We knew that one cannot move past clichés and beyond “the same old thing” without investing serious time exploring a different approach. In our assessment, it is unrealistic and even unfair to expect someone who has perhaps visited Israel twice at most – once on Birthright and once staffing Birthright – to be able to transform a concerned conversation about Gaza into a constructive discussion about Israel in Jewish life, without some form of intensive training. A snatched half-day will rarely be enough.
But who has that amount of time to invest in any one topic of campus work? Can we expect or even demand such a commitment?
Time will tell…!
We at Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel, tackle the challenges of style, politics, the conflict, and Israel’s place in Jewish life with relish. Our 5 day training seminar, providing sophisticated yet accessible solutions for Israel educators and para-educators throughout the world, is ready to go. In my next piece I shall sketch out the backbone to this approach, nicknamed 4HQ – the Four Hatikvah Questions.
Robbie Gringras is Creative Director at Makom.