Let’s stop wagging our fingers at each other and start working together

Once again, the topic of American Jews criticizing Israel is heating up, and conversation about if and how and who we should or should not criticize is everywhere.

This is nothing new, of course. From the time of Joseph and his brothers, we’ve fought amongst ourselves. The Sadducees and the Pharisees didn’t agree. The Maccabees and the Hellenist Jews fought. Hillel and Shammai argued. Even during the Shoah — in our darkest hour — some Jews felt it was best to sit on the Jewish councils to save lives and others fought as partisans in the forests, and they loathed each other. During the founding of the State of Israel, members of the Irgun and the Hagganah even killed each other. 

So, on the one hand, it’s no surprise that American Jews are criticizing Israel’s actions again, and vice versa. On other hand, must we continue the same maddening cycle? When are we going to learn from our past mistakes and change our ways?

It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Enough is enough. It’s time for a new way to communicate with each other. It’s time to engage with each other with respect and empathy. It’s time for us to stop wagging our fingers at each other and start working together. 

Five post-Oct. 7 trends

The unprecedented tragedy of Oct. 7 brought the Jewish People together for a split second. All our differences temporarily moved to the backseat, and we had a moment of unity around our shared trauma. Within weeks, however, that unity dissipated; and now, nearly six months later, our community is diverging again. 

In my role as President and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, I have observed five trends that are pulling us in different directions: 

  1. Many American Jews came out of the woodwork to support Israel after Oct. 7. These Jews had been sleeping before the day of the pogrom, but had their eyes violently pried open to see that anti-Zionism is just a thin veil for antisemitism. They quickly came to realize that Jew-hatred is still thriving around the globe, and these American Jews have joined the fight.
  1. Another batch of American Jews are hungry for “normalcy.” Some of them jumped to help Israel right after Oct. 7, but now they want to send their kids to Sunday school and not have everything be about Israel’s war against Hamas, or the kidnapped hostages, or the ever-present antisemitism all around us. These Jews care about their Jewishness, but want the Jewish part of their lives to center around holidays and celebrations, Jewish books and food and culture. They want their lives to go back to the “normal” it was before Oct. 7. 
  1. Meanwhile, every single Israeli, whether they are living in Israel or in the Diaspora, is in a state of trauma. Every Israeli knows someone personally impacted by Oct. 7: someone in their personal circle who was killed, kidnapped, brutalized, displaced or is serving in the military and at war with Hamas (or Hezbollah). For them, every day is still Oct. 7, so this war continues to be an existential crisis. 
  1. For many American Jews born in other lands, Oct. 7 and the subsequent Jew-hatred has brought back painful memories from their home countries, so they’ve made personal protection their priority. They are shtetling themselves off, moving away from relationships with friends who don’t have sympathy for what Israel is experiencing. They’re buying guns — and not just Jews in Texas, but even Jews in liberal Northern California. It’s worth mentioning that some native-born American Jews are also in this camp as well.
  1. Finally, many younger Jews and some who identify as liberal are seeing Israel’s war against Hamas and are upset by the increasing casualties in Gaza. Most of them believe Israel was wronged on Oct. 7 – and many believe Israel has a right to self-defense – but they also believe Israel has gone too far, so many of these Jews are calling for a cease-fire. And as accidents continue to occur, like the one that left seven international aid workers dead on April 2, this last group is only going to grow.  

Put these five trends together, and it means the unity we momentarily felt post-Oct. 7 is headed for a big bang — which is why this moment is so pivotal. 

The way American Jews and Israelis engage with each other is at a crucial tipping point. This is the moment when we need to decide: Are we going to drop the old paternalistic way of engaging with each other? Are we going to stop thinking we can each ride in on our white horses and save the other? Are we finally going to stop thinking we know better what the other one needs, or not? 

Zionism 3.0

We have a long history of each telling the other that they are doing something wrong and how they ought to fix it. But instead of American Jews wagging our fingers at Israel and Israelis shaking their heads at us, we need to respect each other’s different challenges. We need to engage as partners and find a new way forward, a third way: the Zionism 3.0 way.

Zionism 1.0 was the pre-1948 Zionism of Herzl: the demand for our own state to protect ourselves from antisemitism. Zionism 2.0 was about building the State and was infused by Diaspora negation: the notion that all Jews must either make aliyah or give Israel unequivocal—and preferably silent—support.

Today, there is a strong, vital Jewish State that is home to more than half the world’s Jews and is contributing to the future of Jewish life in remarkable ways. There is also a vibrant, creative Jewish Diaspora that is contributing to the future of Jewish life in remarkable ways. In this historic moment, we must define a new way to engage with each other that allows us to have a stake and a say in each other’s lives; that allows us to consult with each other and not condescend to each other; that allows us to lift each other up and not put each other down. This is the third way, Zionism 3.0. 

It starts with empathy. Israel is surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it. Israel was attacked within its own borders by a terrorist group that embodies evil. Israel’s children were beheaded, burned, raped, tortured, and kidnapped. Israel still has over 130 of its own citizens being held as hostages. They see their children serving in the military, protecting the Jewish State for all Jews everywhere, and they are proud but also scared. 

Meanwhile, American Jews are facing unprecedented levels of Jew-hatred. Local governments pass resolutions that include anti-Zionist language. School boards embrace biased curricula against Israel. Street protests lead to violent attacks against Jews. And students on campus are harassed, intimidated, and assaulted nearly every week.  American Jews are proud of their kids standing up for their identity (when they do), but they are conflicted about how public to be with their Jewishness, so they are scared, too.  

We both need to have a little more compassion, grace, and sympathy for each other. We need to feel together and fight together. We need to heal together and move forward together. If we can acknowledge that we are both in the same place, feeling a mixture of pride and fear, it will allow us to start from a common ground that allows us to reach a higher ground.

Allow me to share a couple of stories to illustrate what it means to fight together: 

In the first week after Oct. 7, American Jews started raising money for Israel. That’s what we’ve done for 75 years, and that’s what we do well. We raised hundreds of millions of dollars through our big institutions—which was great, but our Israeli brothers and sisters in the U.S. felt that it would take too long to get that money to the folks on the ground in Israel who needed it immediately. 

So, Israeli Americans started buying equipment and sending it out on chartered planes to get it directly to the soldiers who needed it. They started creating funds to give money directly to the smaller organizations on the ground who needed it. They started creating shared WhatsApp groups and shared Google Docs to keep track of what Israelis on the front lines needed. And in many cases, this new hands-on philanthropy worked because Israelis knew better what Israelis needed. But also, in some cases, the wrong equipment was sent; things got held up in customs; and the fundraised dollars went into a black hole. 

Ultimately, matching the existential urgency expressed by Israelis with the institutional know-how that Americans have mastered over the years makes for a stronger battle plan.

Additionally, in the weeks right after Oct. 7, Israelis in the Bay Area wanted our political leaders to condemn Hamas’ terrorism. They wanted our leaders to speak out against the Jew-hatred our kids were experiencing. They wanted unequivocal, uncompromising statements of solidarity, and they were like a freight train. They demanded our local city councils and school boards issue resolutions, and they couldn’t understand why yelling and screaming at our non-Jewish, less informed, and confused local leadership wasn’t getting them what they wanted.

Meanwhile, American Jews who’ve been here in Northern California for generations and had developed political relationships were working the systems quietly behind the scenes. Israelis were frustrated that American Jews were moving too slowly and being too obsequious. But American Jews knew that this wouldn’t be the last fight, so it wouldn’t benefit anyone to burn bridges by screaming at every politician who was not 100% with us on 100% of the language. Also, American Jews knew that Israelis would burn out if they continued to play whack-a-mole and didn’t choose their battles.

This was another example of each of us trying to save the other. We didn’t consult with the other; we just acted, because we thought “we” know best how to help “them.” 

Over the last six months, however, things have gone from “We know better so get out of our way” to “We have some ideas and really want to make a difference” to “Let’s work together.” Even in places like the Bay Area, where we have over 50,000 Israeli expats — many of whom are deeply engaged with our community — we are not getting it right every time, but we are learning from our mistakes and making important headway. It hasn’t been easy, but over time we are getting there. Now the Israelis who’ve been embedded in American Jewish institutions, like our JCCs and Federations and Jewish day schools, are able to coach the grassroots activists on how to build better coalitions, how to get involved in politics productively, how to coordinate across geographical areas, and so much more. We are more effective together and will continue to improve as we listen to each other.

In the end, only by bringing together long-standing American institutional know-how and deep relationships with unbridled Israeli chutzpah and undeterred passion will we be able to succeed in fighting antisemitism at home and Israel’s enemies abroad. This is the formula for success. It is time to come together and draw the best from our Diaspora selves and the best from our Israeli selves.

Am Yisrael Chai. 

Zack Bodner is the president and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto, Calif.