[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 Jay Michaelson
You know the joke: A Jew is found on a desert island, where he has built two synagogues. Why? “That’s the shul I go to,” he says, gesturing to one, “and that’s the one I won’t be caught dead in.”
It’s true – we Jews love to build institutions, an affinity that has served us quite well over the centuries. But, like many once-advantageous national traits, this predilection for institution-building has run amok in recent years. I’m not sure anyone has counted, but surely the Jewish people has more institutions per capita than any other national or religious group on the planet.
So, as this issue of the Peoplehood Papers ponders the creation of yet another global Jewish institution, allow me to sound a cautionary note – and propose some alternatives.
I speak from some experience, having been part of several global Jewish institutions/ think-tanks/ conferences/ cohorts in the past. For example, I was a founding member of Kol Dor, which was supposed to be the “voice of a new generation” of engaged Jewish leaders, before it immediately became bogged down in parliamentary procedures and abstract position papers. And I’ve been to many of the same Big Jewish Talkfests (BJTs) that, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to as well. These have mostly been nice enough, especially when someone else is footing the bill, but I can’t say that they’ve really led to anything. Other than, of course, the networking, which I’ll talk about below.
Which brings me to the notion of a “Parliament of the Jewish People,” which strikes me as yet another BJT whose mission overlaps with several already-existing gatherings – isn’t this what the Jewish Agency is trying to do these days? – and which is unlikely to have any real power. Yes, it would bring people together, but people already come together in existing fora. Better to improve those spaces, and make them more clearly about relationship-building, than create yet another one.
And what would such a parliament really do? It may put out some interesting statements, and spur some very nasty arguments about the West Bank, but the only way it would actually have power is if there were a significant buy-in from existing institutions, including the Federations in the United States and the Zionist organizations in Israel that this is indeed The Parliament of the Jewish People. That, to me, seems exceedingly unlikely. Even setting aside the question of turf, why would such organizations assent to some new body, membership TBA, having actual authority over important policy questions? Surely the leaders of existing global organizations think that they are the experts, and to some extent they’re right.
The related question is membership. If existing organizations, staffed by specialists, are to be asked to listen to this new body, the crucial question is who is in it. And there seems no clear right answer to that question. Should such a parliament represent all Jews, in which case 25% should be intermarried, disaffiliated, and disconnected from Israel and the Jewish people? Should it represent all Jews who seem to affiliate somehow? And how would that be determined? Should it draw membership from existing organizations – and if so who decides which organizations send representatives? Maybe it’s just pay-to-play – in which case such a parliament would not reflect “the Jewish people” but the small subset of Jews willing and able to pay for it. That’s not a parliament; it’s a vanity press.
Even if all these logistical and philosophical questions are resolved, however, there remains the core question of whether such a centralized, top-down entity is even desirable. We Jews are, essentially, a large family. We disagree about what constitutes Jewishness – religion, nationality, culture, race – and that we’re not going to agree any time soon. Most of us agree about a few basic things, but we disagree about most others. We are liberals, radicals, conservatives, radical-conservatives. We are particularists, universalists, religionists, secularists. Should there really be such a thing as A Jewish parliament? Wouldn’t such a parliament look a lot like the Knesset, with different factions operating from different operating assumptions? Except since the Knesset is actually charged with governance, it has to actually find a way to make things work. Not so the global Jewish Parliament.
And that brings us back to the question of BJTs in general. Given my generally decentralized, from-the-bottom-up conception of Jewish peoplehood, it should be unsurprising that, to me, the only real purpose of a BJT is networking. Yet if we agree that that is the real goal, BJT’s should look very different.
How many times have we seen this happen: a BJT is tasked with something – crafting a mission statement, learning about the Next Big Buzzword (NBB?), whatever – and because of that nominal goal, free time is crunched and mixers are limited to the vermouth and OJ poured into the cocktails. The Israel Presidential Conference, for example, has now grown so successful and so large that it’s almost impossible to meet anybody. This past June, I saw lots of folks who spent their time reading other people’s nametags, and trying to suss out whether this was someone worth meeting or not. And I’m not picking on that conference; most BJTs are similar.
If we admit that BJTs are really about relationship building, we would craft them differently. We’d have affinity groups with facilitated meeting spaces, facilitated non-hokey mixer activities, and more opportunities to connect with people whose work intersects with our own. We’d let go of the notion of goals and grand statements, and focus instead of building deeper relationships between very different sorts of Jews. We could have deeper, facilitated conversations between Jews of different political persuasions, to help participants see the ‘other side’ more clearly. We’d create cohorts of diverse Jews, not to try and agree on anything, but to try to find a way to disagree in a more civilized way, to articulate where and why we disagree, and to build the kinds of personal relationships that transcend those differences.
Really, how many ‘professional Jews’ are there? I see the same people at BJTs, over and over again. What if we actually used proven technologies to try to communicate more effectively with one another? What if we exited our echo chambers and entered a carefully constructed space where real conversations are possible?
This may sound like a utopian proposal, but I’ve done it on a small scale now for eight years with my organization, Nehirim. It’s not impossible, if relationship-building is a primary and not a secondary goal. Maybe then we could write a different, though less funny, punchline to that Jewish joke: “this is the shul I go to,” the Jew could reply, “and that one, well, I can see where they’re coming from.”
Jay Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and activist whose work focuses on the intersections of religion, spirituality, sexuality, and law.