Dreamers and doers

Imagine the impossible: Andrés Spokoiny’s address to JFN 2023

In Short

Funders can exert influence, and wherever we stand politically, we can all call for moderation, compromise and rationality. The degradation of public discourse in Israel is rampant, and nobody, except maybe president Herzog, seems eager and willing to act responsibly.

There’s an old joke about a Jewish telegram back in the old days when we still communicated with telegrams. It read “Start Worrying. Details to Follow.” Well, it doesn’t go well with my sunny personality to be a prophet of doom, but it seems that I got that telegram, and I am worried. 

As we look at the problems that Israel and the Jewish world face today, we may take a page from Ari Wallach’s book and look at the long term. We will then see that, for Jews – at least for Jewish States – the number seventy-five has been historically catastrophic. In fact, the two previous experiences in Jewish statehood collapsed after a mere 75 years. 

In our first state, three thousand years ago, David and Solomon maintained a united kingdom for more or less that time. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split and decadence and foreign domination ensued. Hundreds of years later, the Hasmonean kingdom, created after the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, lasted for 75 years before disintegrating in a civil war that led to Rome occupying the country and eventually destroying the state. In both cases, the country was strong and prosperous (in fact, at the peak of its power) and in both cases the collapse was triggered by internal conflict.

You know where I’m going with this, obviously.

Israel is now 75. On the one hand it is at the peak of its military and economic power; its achievements fill us with pride and joy; and yet, on the other hand, the threat of dissolution and civil strife is felt more keenly than ever. 

I know that history doesn’t repeat itself, and I know that Israel is a strong and resilient country, but when the president of state calls this the biggest crisis in the history of the country and repeats over and over that he fears a civil war, we must pay attention. Maybe worrying now can save us from lamenting later, maybe being a little catastrophist today is the way to avoid catastrophe tomorrow. 

So, can history serve as a cautionary tale? Can we make sure that “third time’s a charm” and this time we get statehood right? And what can we do as leaders and funders? 

We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, to understand the problem that we and Israel face today, we need to go back to the sources; to the father of modern Zionism. Theodor Herzl not only prophesied the creation of the state, but he foresaw the double challenge that Israel and the Jewish people face today.

He wrote two seminal books, that were supposed to be both in tension with and complementary to each other. His first book, the Jewish State was about antisemitism and how to respond to it. 

There he wrote: “We have tried to integrate to the countries in which we live, seeking only to preserve our faith. They didn’t let us. In vain we are loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain we made sacrifices of life and property for our country; in vain we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, in vain we enrich them by trade and commerce.  And Yet,we are still decried as aliens.”

And then he proposes his solution: “I consider the Jewish question to be a national question, The Land of Israel is our historic homeland. The Jews who will it, shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil.” “Jews” – continued Herzl – “must depend on themselves, not on the capricious mercy of others.”

In other words, for Herzl, there’s no solution for antisemitism, so, to survive, we need to have our own state in our ancestral homeland. That state needs to be strong and powerful, so as to defend itself and secure the safety of Jews everywhere. 

But a few years later, in 1902, Herzl wrote his second book: Altneuland (Old-New Land). Curiously, in that book there’s no mention of antisemitism at all. The book deals exclusively with the character of the Jewish State. As Herzl was prophetic regarding the creation of the state, he also foresaw the conflict that Israel is having today. 

In a key part of the book, there’s a confrontation between Rabbi Geyer, a fanatic who wants to deprive Arabs of civil rights and convert Israel into a theocratic dictatorship and Dr. Marcus, a liberal-democrat who wants to keep the enlightened, humanist and democratic character of the new state. 

Herzl writes that if Geyer gets to implement his program, the Jewish state as he imagined it, will be in grave danger. He understood that the Jewish state can’t be just any state, that its very survival depended on its character and its values. 

He knew that the state would require enormous sacrifices and those sacrifices would only be borne by a people that has full freedom and that can be proud of what it’s building. He knew that Jews would never serve a dictatorship. 

Herzl and successive Israeli leaders like Ben Gurion and Begin understood that democracy wasn’t a mere “ad-on” to the Jewish state but a condition for its very existence. 

The question is not “who’s Geyer and who’s Marcus” in the current conflict, that’s up to you to decide, the point is that there’s a clash about the nature and the character of the country. A clash that could – God forbid – turn violent. So today, we face the two challenges that Herzl saw and foresaw.

On the one hand, we face the specter of a resurgence of antisemitism; on college campuses, in an Iranian regime that wants to “wipe us off the face of the Earth”; in white supremacy; in bigots that badly hide their antisemitism as anti-zionism. 

Not since WWII, has antisemitism been normalized and legitimized by those in power; not since world war 2 has antisemitism been acceptable in polite discourse and intellectual debate or reached the board-rooms of the corporate world and investment rating agencies. And at the same time, the struggle anticipated by Herzl inside the Jewish State is happening in front of our eyes. 

We live now in the scenario of Altneuland: a moment of truth in which the character and the nature of the state is being decided. And both the result of that decision and the dysfunctional way in which we are fighting for it, will mark Israel for generations. So, what should we funders do in this critical moment? What should be our role? Let me share a few thoughts:

Disengagement is not an option:

Some among us are calling to “disengage from Israel.” Some because they’re “disappointed” in Israel, some because they think “it’s none of our business.” To those that are “disappointed,” I lovingly say this: Israel is not a consumer good that you discard when it disappoints you, it’s not a car that you change for a better model when you tire of it. It’s part of us and you don’t disengage from a part of you. You don’t leave your family when the going gets rough. Rather the opposite: you engage more; you invest more; you get more involved. 

Israelis are not giving up, on both sides of the debate, they’re fighting for the future of the country and they need your support. Who are we to give up if they don’t? To those that say “it’s Israel’s internal business” I lovingly say this: while it’s true that the main actors in the drama of Israel are the Israelis themselves, what happens there affects us all. Because Israel is the only true collective project of the Jewish People. We support Israel unconditionally, and part of that support is making the best place it can be, even if we disagree about what that means. Organizations that work towards addressing social issues in Israel can be avenues for engagement. Instead of telling young Jews to give up on Israel, we need to tell them that “if you don’t like what’s going on there, go and help Israelis that want to change it.” 

For funders being engaged is not just talk or write angry tweets, like I sometimes do when I can’t control myself. Funders, above all, fund and lead. And today, there are tons of things we can – and MUST – fund  in Israel. 

Don’t ascribe to the game of the antisemites:

Antisemites and anti-Zionists hate the good things of Israel, not the bad ones. They didn’t need [Israeli National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir to demonize Israel and call for our demise, so don’t fall for that cheap trick. BDS wasn’t launched in response to the judicial reform. In fact, it was launched during governments of the left. Today, we need to redouble, (triple!) our efforts to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism. We need to be very cleareyed that whatever the failings of our state, its right to exist can’t be put in question. 

While we fight for the Israel we want, we can’t let the antisemites attack its very existence. We need to fight relentlessly those that hijack the language of “human rights” to call for bigotry and hatred against us. It may sound contradictory, but it isn’t. Actually the opposite: 

Fighting for the character of the state should give us the moral high ground  to redouble our efforts to defend Israel in the public square. 

The challenge of antisemitism requires creative solutions, extensive bridge building and, above all, a willingness to fight and not give up. 

That’s why in this conference, we had many sessions on antisemitism and anti-zionism and that’s why I encourage you all, to join the many efforts that defend Jews and Israel in the public square. 

Funders can be the adults in the room:

Funders can exert influence, and wherever we stand politically, we can all call for moderation, compromise and rationality. The degradation of public discourse in Israel is rampant, and nobody, except maybe president Herzog, seems eager and willing to act responsibly. 

Nothing good can come from that. Yair Netanyahu, the powerful son of the prime minister called protesters “Nazis” twice, and didn’t get rebuked. The last time Jews were called Nazis by other Jews blood was spilled. As Hillel said “where there is no person, be a person,” that is our task as funders: be the voice of reason, calm and public responsibility. 

We need to model public discourse, even when, and precisely when, the stakes are high and the tempers hot. But lowering the temperature doesn’t mean tampering dissent. On the contrary: funders need to protect the right of people to say what they think. 

We live in a time in which debate is suppressed and discourse that doesn’t ascribe to a certain dogma penalized or “cancelled.” That is no way to have a healthy and vibrant community. 

Funders will need to heal the wounds and keep the dialogue open. 

I always say that the main difference today in the Jewish people is not between left and right, religious or secular, but between those that accept the diversity and plurality of the Jewish people and those that don’t. In all camps there are people that would love to have a Jewish people that is exactly like them. It’ll never happen. We are who we are, diverse, fractious, plural. And we all have the same intrinsic value.

When this crisis is over, and it will be over, we – funders – we’ll need to help pick up the pieces and rebuild the fabric of civic life. While many of our members have very strong opinions about the current situation, JFN Israel has brought together people from different persuasions to continue the dialogue, to find ways to disagree civilly, lovingly and respectfully; to try, with empathy to understand the point of view of the other. We obviously can’t count on politicians to do it.

Many JFN members, know that funding dialogue and co-existence is not calling people to sing kumbaya, but using our philanthropic power to help people tackle the very hard challenges of living together in a shared society.

When the meaning Judaism and Zionism are debated internally and vilified externally, we need to give our communities – and especially our young – the knowledge and the tools to be part of the conversation. For that we need to redouble our investment in Jewish and Zionist education. 

We can’t let our young learn Zionism by listening only to the toxic and polarized debates of today. They’ll want none of it. We can’t let Jews learn what Judaism mean from antisemites. We can’t let college students learn about Zionism from BDS. And we can’t allow extremists on the left and right sell us on a twisted and reductionist version of Judaism that suits their political agendas. We can’t give extremists and antisemites the right to define Judaism and Zionism for us. 

How many in the American Jewish Community read the Herzl books I mentioned, how many know of the works of Rav Kook, how many read Jabotinsky or Borochov? And because the brain abhors a vacuum, when we don’t know our own history, we end up absorbing the biases of others. 

We can’t allow what Herzl feared most: that by absorbing the disdain of the others, we’ll end up despising ourselves.


These are just five general directions I suggest, I’m sure that you can think of others. 

This is, after all, a room full of people that imagine the impossible and make it happen, you’re dreamers and doers, and you are philanthropists because you believe that change is possible, that future isn’t immutable, that we can be what we want to be. 

My main message today is this: we are the blessed generation. The one that could see the miracle of Israel’s rebirth. Because we got that incomprehensible blessing, it’s incumbent on us to help prove history wrong, to defy the odds as we did many times, to make it “third time’s a charm” and make 75 our lucky number. Our challenge today is to hold the two Herzl books simultaneously. Fight tooth and nail against the external enemies that seek to demonize us and eventually destroy us, and conduct the necessary debate about the nature of our national renaissance. As tough as this debate is, it’s our debate. And we, funders and leaders, can and must influence that debate. 

And while we fight for the Israel we want, we must ensure that we  don’t fracture our people beyond repair. Herzl’s two books – the Jewish and the democratic dimensions of our national project – are reflected in the document that gave birth to Israel. 

From our foundation, we knew the double challenge we had, so we engraved it the “birth certificate” of our nation: The Declaration of Independence.

For me, this document is highly personal. Growing up, I had it affixed to my wall, above my bed, and I read it every night, as a secular prayer for the place that was the center of my yearnings. 

So much, that to this very day, I know the words by heart. 

It’s a sign of the craziness of our times, that now many consider these words to be subversive and others, consider them colonialist and criminal. But for me they are the most beautiful words ever written by a human hand, for they crystallize the highest aspirations, and the inalienable rights of our people. 

And because there aren’t any words that I can come up with that will be more powerful, I will finish my remarks with them: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.



THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

WE APPEAL — even in the very midst of the bloody onslaught launched against us— to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions.

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. 

The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and rebuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream — the redemption of Israel.


THE 5TH DAY OF IYAR, 5708 – 14TH MAY,1948.”

Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.