By Andrew Tisch & Irina Nevzlin
In March of this year, a small group of Jewish philanthropists, activists and thinkers from Israel and around the world met at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. The conclusions that followed, summarized below, will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the opinion pages of any Jewish newspaper or website. Importantly, they call for urgent redress.
While diversity and disagreement are neither new nor inherently problematic for the Jewish people, the level of disharmony among Jews today seems unprecedented. Because of the uphill nature of addressing this issue, and the natural tendency to prioritize more tangible short-term objectives, there remains a clear lack of financial and intellectual investment in this area.
Although countless Jewish groups regularly look at the issues affecting their own regional or denominational situation, the effects of both factionalism and logistical constraints tend to limit the options for genuine cross-communal, cross-border Jewish sentiment. The upshot, regrettably, is a lack of long-term thinking about the Jewish people in terms that relate meaningfully to its entirety and its universality.
In the post-war era, wherever Jews have lived in relative freedom, collective identity has been held together by a number of pillars; building and supporting the State of Israel; a commitment to Judaism and/or Jewish community; and shared immersion in major historical events, such as the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Soviet Jewry movement and the mass Western migration of Sephardic Jewry.
The effectiveness of each these pillars at binding together Jewish life is now under question.
Firstly, in the western, educated setting in which most Jews are raised, all religion is facing an overwhelming backlash, aimed principally against the violent excesses of its own turn to extremism. Within this context, it’s clear that there are great sections of the Jewish people for whom Judaism in any form, including its tribal attachment to Jewish peoplehood, is all but meaningless.
Modern Jewish history, too, is showing diminishing returns as a tool to warrant lifelong Jewish commitment. Young Jews today may well be proud of their historical roots, but not to the extent that those roots dictate a particular life trajectory, or impose a specific sense of communion with other Jews.
Antisemitism, of course, has been a powerful agent historically to bind the Jewish people, however it hardly offers a positive, substantive experience on which to base a nuanced identity.
That leaves the most divisive topic: Israel.
For hundreds of thousands of young Jews globally, integration and inclusion are primary values. Definitions of “us and them” or “insider and outsider,” are seen as exclusionary and anachronistic. The notion of a nominally “Jewish state” sits uncomfortably outside of this framework.
To retain its place therefore in the good graces of young hearts, Israel is expected to conform to another modern Jewish value: progressive ethics. A Jewish state, if it is to be embraced at all by this group, must be flawless in its conduct. This demand places an undue burden on Israel, which is, after all, a real-world political construct like any other, rather than a utopia.
Whereas Israel was once the protected darling child of the Jewish world, that metaphor no longer fits. Instead, depending on your perspective, Israel has either regressed to the role of unruly child, defined by runaway policy and infirm values, or progressed to the role of parent, now responsible for a weakened and subservient diaspora.
The breakdown in the relationship between Israel and sections of the global Jewish community – seen most often around issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and religious pluralism – is further exacerbated by Israel’s ideological history. Decades of deliberate near-total indifference to the existence of Jewish life outside of the country have left many Israeli Jews – including members of successive governments – not just underexposed to the vibrancy and calculus of Jewish life overseas, but ill-equipped to connect with, give to, or gain from international Jewish communities.
While the pretext may change slightly from day to day, examples abound. The general pattern is consistent; X and Y (usually the Israeli government and some part of the leadership of American Jewry) will clash over a matter of policy, followed by a predictable sequence of mutual posturing, crisis talks and lukewarm peacemaking. All the while, the fundamental trends that underpin these events go unaddressed.
Against this constant humdrum of noise, it’s encouraging to see the “covenant” drawn up earlier this year by a talented young cohort of Wexner Heritage alumni, tackling many of the same questions that we raise here. What’s more, we commend and share the key conclusion reached by the Wexner group; the need for the “establishment of a unique platform to facilitate and encourage engagement … (and) … ongoing dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”
In our assessment, the Jewish people will benefit immensely from a credible and accessible platform, purpose-built to maintain open and productive channels of communication between different streams of Jewish life, including outlier groups whose instinctive attachment to this goal may seem limited.
For sure, Jews the world over are deeply committed to tackling these issues, with great success at times. Fragments of this conversation are continually evolving in Jewish centers across the globe, and each effort is a step in the right direction. In order to maximize their impact however, coordination and centralization are essential. Only this will allow big-picture Jewish dialog to be extended and more broadly embraced.
In that spirit of collaboration, we’re thrilled to announce the creation of The Andrew H. and Ann R. Tisch Center for Jewish Dialogue at the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, to be based at the museum’s home in Tel Aviv.
At its core, the Center will serve to keep disparate sections of the Jewish world actively and outwardly valuing, validating and acting upon a consistently wide lens of Jewish life. In addition to hosting its own annual program of Jewish dialog events, the Center will serve primarily as a venue for its partners – any Jewish group, of any denomination or inclination, seeking to raise an issue affecting the Jewish people.
We see great hope in dedicating a physical space – the first of its kind – that’s been created specifically to bring together the thinkers and the thinking needed to shape a Jewish future built on real unity. It’s an ambitious vision, as it should be, guided, of course, by a love for the Jewish people, and a little faith.
Irina Nevzlin is Chair of the Board of Directors of The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot and President of The Nadav Foundation.
Andrew H. Tisch is Co-Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Loews Corporation. Andrew is engaged in many social and philanthropic causes, both within and beyond the Jewish community.