Selling Zionism at the GA

Ideology is out, they warn me, on the way to New Orleans
By David Breakstone

Every New Yorker knows that LGA stands for LaGuardia Airport. Arriving there early Sunday morning, it appears that, for a day at least, it also stands for Leaving for the General Assembly, the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place this year in New Orleans.

Before boarding my flight, I manage to bump into more than half a dozen Jewish professionals whose paths I’ve crossed in my years of involvement in Jewish communal life. Dozens more whom I don’t know are already talking shop. The GA experience has taken off though the plane is still on the ground.

“I hope you know you’re not going to be able to sell Zionism to anyone out there,” one colleague warns me, aware that I’m traveling as a representative of the World Zionist Organization. “Ideology is out.”

That’s the second warning I’ve gotten that I’m going to have a hard time peddling my wares, and I only stepped out of the taxi 20 minutes ago. My knapsack is literally full of Israel materials, and I’m being told I that should check them at the door.

“What about the delegitimization of Israel?” I suggest. “Surely that’s of concern to everyone.”

“Everyone like me,” my friend responds, “but not the people you want to reach.”

I am worried that he may be right. Two days ago, I did a number of workshops with Jewish educators in Baltimore. The participants were all well aware of the transformative power of the Israel experience, confirmed by numerous studies over the last two decades. And as the number of young people participating in Israel programs has grown exponentially, thanks to such undertakings as the 10-day Birthright trip and the 10-month Masa Israel journey, the phenomenon has become increasingly significant in shaping American Jewish life.

Nevertheless, those taking part in my sessions express deep concern about the growing trend of disassociation from Israel on the part of the vast majority that have yet to visit the country. And they confirm my suspicion that we are losing the PR war on the home front, never mind in the public arena.

“My students are buying into the argument that the Israelis, and not the Palestinians, are the true obstacle to peace,” one of the participants tells me.

“The people I’m working with are becoming progressively more uncomfortable with the image they have of Israel as an unjust society,” says another.

“Never mind how Israel is treating its own,” interjects a third, “I’m spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to stem the growing sense of disenfranchisement with the Jewish state on the part of my constituency that feels their brand of Judaism is not welcome in the Jewish state. I’m not as anxious about the delegitimization of Israel as I am about Israel’s delegitimization of me,” says this Reform rabbi.

I arrive at the GA just in time for two major sessions featuring panelists grappling with these issues. Thankfully, there is no attempt on their part to diminish their seriousness. While offering no instant solutions, they encourage the hundreds of attendees to wrestle with the issues.

“But I’m reluctant to speak openly about Israel’s shortcomings,” says one of them. “I’m afraid my criticism will be used by Israel’s enemies to undermine its right to exist.”

“Israel is not on probation,” retorts one of the speakers. “There’s a profound difference between critiquing Israel as part of a dialogue intended to right what is wrong and a diatribe aimed at its obliteration.”

The constructive critique he urges is one I welcome as well. In response to those who are disappointed that Israel is not all they would wish it to be, I urge them to see the Jewish state as a work in process. “We need your engagement in helping us to right the wrongs,” I tell them. “The conversation has just begun. Don’t walk away from it.”

This is the Zionism I am trying to sell here. Over the next couple of days we’ll see if there are any takers.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.