Back to The Future: The Global Jewish Conversation

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Sanford Antignas and Moti Kristal

Cellular networks. Text messaging. Internet. Social networks. Facebook. Crowd sourcing. Twitter.

Technology has dramatically changed the way we think and act. Articles and conversations throughout the Jewish world have made significant reference to this change, exploring and taking advantage of these technological opportunities to enhance the global Jewish conversation. As active participants and from time to time leaders of such conversations, we prefer to focus on the content and the context rather than on the means and the modes. We believe that what we are experiencing today goes beyond the use of modern technology to facilitate the conversation. Rather, we are seeing a fascinating contextual shift to the pre-holocaust paradigm of an open, pluralistic conversation among thriving Jewish communities.

The global Jewish conversation prior to the 20th century was conducted through the “Shu’t”, questions and answers around religious (halacha), communal, personal and political issues, as well as through Jewish newspapers (such as Bulletin de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle). These all brought various voices to the conversation. None sought governance, while all sought persuasion and influence. These conversations often interpreted things differently, learned from each other, and brought diverse opinions to a rich conversation. It is important to note that despite the challenges the Jewish people faced during those centuries, unity or consensus was not the imperative. Although, when necessary, there was a value in finding common ground or an agreed plan of action.

It is fair to argue that when compared to other civilizations, the Jewish People maintained its existence over thousands of years largely due to its adaptability, dynamism, lack of centralization and governing controls while having strong links and the ability to communicate, debate, inform and build coalitions of common thoughts, common agenda, common practice, etc. Hundreds of years before Zuckerberg put a face to a book, Jewish life worldwide was organized as a social network with its strength derived from its various nodes, and the absence of a central node. Jewish life, Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood thrived not despite, but because of the competing ideas and voices without a sole authority/body to determine who was right or stronger.

Until the 20th century, the global Jewish conversation was not governed, and therefore it was not dominated by any global or national organization. Hence, it enjoyed a pluralistic and fertile environment. For more than 2,000 years there was neither Jewish sovereignty nor a single leading Jewish organization or figures that determined the topics of the global Jewish conversation or its agenda. Even today, there is no person, organization or authority that can impose its will on the entire global Jewish People. It was not until the first Zionist congress in 1897 and the establishment of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which channeled the global Jewish conversation and agenda towards the much needed Zionistic paradigm, that the global Jewish discourse began to be governed by a global Jewish organization. It is interesting to note that the WZO emerged from the ideas and leaders of a networked grassroots movement, which in many instances was initially opposed by the “establishment leaders”.

With the emergence of the idea of the Jewish nation state  – the appearance of Zionism and the need to rebuild a people and a nation from the ashes of the Holocaust – came the change, the aberration, in the nature of the global Jewish conversation.

Between 1945 and 1948, the State of Israel, the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people, became the leading, not to say the sole, “project” of the Jewish People. This providential move, dominated by a few top-down organizations, led by courageous individuals, managed to mobilize the resources of the Jewish People globally. They not only were extremely successful in securing Jewish sovereignty 52 years after it was presented as a controversial idea in Herzl’s pamphlet, but they also determined sequential objectives such as fighting anti-Semitism and rescuing Soviet Jewry (the latter, by the way, started as a grassroots Jewish movement. and only later was embraced by the State and the organized Jewish world).

This global Jewish “project”, the founding and securing of the State dramatically changed the nature of the global Jewish conversation. The imperatives of the times and the objectives made public dissent unacceptable. Dissent was stifled, especially if it could be heard by non-Jews and could possibly give the impression of lack of Jewish unity and endanger the main agenda.

Slowly, but surely, “Jewish Unity” replaced the fundamental idea of “Kol Israel Arevim Ze ‘la Ze”. The artificial need to reach a false consensus replaced the sacred Jewish value of debate. This shift has been fortified by the creation of a bi-polar Jewish conversation (New York-Jerusalem), dominated by the State of Israel’s institutions and global/North American Jewish organizations and philanthropists. The norms of the global Jewish conversation of the past 65 years, which once mobilized the Jewish People and achieved miracles, now for many Jews result in apathy and even disengagement from the Jewish People.

“Oy, Vey!”….. nevertheless, we are optimistic because a dynamic system like the Jewish People, as it has for over 2,000 years, always adjusts to an appropriate equilibrium.

Today, with the emergence of Peoplehood as a leading concept, with the understanding that the Zionist project is safe and secure (even though it is under constant threat, there are no longer any question marks!), the global Jewish conversation is rightfully returning to its historic equilibrium of pluralism. As this served us well in the past, this is the only way to secure the future of the Jewish People.

In today’s global Jewish conversation:

  • structure is not as important as the rules of the game, the ability to allow ideas to emerge and the power of ideas and leadership to form agendas across the Jewish world;
  • acceptance that different people and communities may interpret and do things differently, and that different does not mean illegitimate; and,
  • institutions are replaced by global Jewish networks which bring the pluralism of ideas, encourage the legitimacy of the debate, and offer free exchange of opposing views on the verge of chaos.
  • Cellular accessibility. Text massaging. Internet. Social networks. Facebook. Crowd sourcing. Twitter.

Technology has dramatically changed the way we think and act. And indeed, the global Jewish conversation in the 21st century is conducted in multiple communication channels: books, newspapers, blogs, talkbacks, websites, and tweets. The Jewish People continue to develop new conceptual paradigms, to make Jewish knowledge and wisdom – in all its forms – accessible to increasing numbers of Jews (in terms of age, literacy, geography, etc.), and to ”de-regulate” the marketplace of Jewish ideas, more than ever in Jewish history.

Returning to our 2,000 year old tradition of open, pluralistic conversation amongst thriving Jewish communities will lead to: (1) innovation in ideas and concepts in life science, social science, religious and communal life, and more; (2) emergence of alternative social and organizational structures as well as dramatic changes in current global and national Jewish organizations, as we witnessed with recent changes in local Federations and global Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Agency; and (3) a consolidated “cohesion” of the Jewish People, rather than false “unity”.

The Jewish People do not need any “new” central organizations to further the global Jewish conversation. Rather, existing organizations and institutions of the State, if they are to best serve the Jewish People, need to acknowledge that they are not the center of the conversation. They must make space for, promote, enable and listen to the pluralistic global Jewish conversation that is going on in their midst and act to support what emerges from it.

… and no, there is no need to agree with what we are saying. On the contrary.

Sanford Antignas and Moty Cristal are New-York and Tel-Aviv based friends, who when they were not arguing about the future of the Jewish People, they led (2002-2010) KolDor, a network of young Jewish leaders. In their professional lives one is an investor and and the other an expert in negotiation and crisis management, and are active in their respective Jewish communities. Comments are welcome at santignas@sokho.com and cristalm@nest-consulting.net.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

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