The Israel Program Brain Drain

By Eli Cohn-Postell

Every relationship has a breaking point. We all have a point where being consistently engaged with someone or something is no longer worth our time, effort, or emotional energy. Most of the time we do not know where this line is until it is crossed, and the point of no return varies for each of our relationships. Rarely do we have the foresight to see the breaking point coming.

In our community we often worry that irreparable damage is being done to the American-Israel relationship. We talk about distancing, which is a code word for American Jews reaching their breaking point with Israel. Distancing describes the phenomenon of young people being turned off from Israel and the American Jewish conversation about Israel, potentially never to return. And while I do not wish to adjudicate the distancing debate here, I will say that this hand-wringing conversation about Israel tends to focus on the masses at the expense of a population that is perhaps even more important: the communal professionals who serve as their educators, trip leaders, and meaning makers as they learn to articulate their own relationships to Israel. While these professionals are unlikely to undergo a personal distancing, they may experience a professional distancing that damages our community’s ability to have meaningful conversations about Israel and its future.

While I am personally committed to the American Jewish conversation about Israel, I have watched in recent months and years as some of my peers have reached their limits. I have spent nearly a decade building this network, beginning when I lived in Israel on the now defunct program OTZMA. I went on to lead Birthright trips with Hillel, received a graduate education in Jewish leadership at Brandeis, and a Master’s concentration in Israel education from the iCenter. Where my community of trained, articulate Israel educators should be growing my sense is that it is actually shrinking. One of my colleagues recently left the Jewish community entirely, another is trying desperately to get out of working on Israel-related programming, and another is beginning to question a professional role that forces them to act in support of Israeli policies that they find objectionable. These three are not alone, I believe they are emblematic of a broad and troubling trend going unnoticed in the Jewish communal sphere. And this does not make mention of the number of talented professionals who never even consider starting a position in an Israel-related field.

It is clear to me why this is the case. The dwindling number of American Jews who believe that Israel deserves our unwavering support has coincided with Israeli actions that are perceived by many as morally questionable. Recent examples include the increasing plight and desperation of the African asylum seekers, violence on the Gaza border resulting in the death of many and the injury of hundreds, and the continued threat of creeping annexation being pushed by the Israeli right. Very few people will want to spend 20, 30, or 40+ hours a week processing these issues and helping interpret them in nuanced and relatable ways for the rest of the American Jewish community.

This problem is only exacerbated by an American Jewish community that continues to shut down rather than create open spaces for people to talk about Israel. I was deeply affected by the events last summer at Seattle’s Camp Solomon Schechter. I am an advocate of the Kids4Peace program in Jerusalem, in Boston, and around the world. I believe that programs like Kids4Peace are instrumental in creating the trust between Israelis and Palestinians that will be essential to sustaining a future two-state agreement. I found it deeply concerning that Schechter had to publicly apologize for deigning to show that Palestinians are human beings with a national identity, and I think it demonstrates the gap that exists between where our communal conversation is and where it needs to be in order for us to be supportive of a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian future.

We must start thinking about what happens if and when more trained professionals decide that the time, effort, and emotional energy they devote to Israel is not offering a sufficient return on their investment. There is a real threat that the people who approach this topic with moderation and nuance will decide that the costs of being in a full-time relationship with Israel outweigh the benefits. Who will replace them? How will the new landscape affect our communal conversations about Israel, including concerns about distancing? And what are we willing to do to make sure this doesn’t happen?

Eli Cohn-Postell is the Director of Israel Engagement at the JCRC of Greater Boston.