What is the Adaptive Work for Israelis and Americans?
A Story and Three Reflections for Yom Ha’atzmaut

By Sarah Mali

[Presented at the Makom Israel Educators Conference, Jerusalem, November 2018]

On the porch of the shared adult living area we sat. My husband and I were attending a Jewish professionals retreat in America as Israel educators. A couple who had been given a room adjacent to ours entered. The husband put The New York Times on the table, sat down, looked at us and said: you’re from Israel right? I have to tell you something: never in my lifetime have I once felt a sense of pride from Israel. I know my parents did but I don’t. And his wife echoed the same sentiment, shaking her head and looking downwards.

My husband and I looked at each other and I quietly hoped Matanya – the real Israeli – would answer, he in turn looked at me, with a kind of you-are-the-English-speaker look. I frowned, considering my options. Entebbe was out of the question, 1976 was the year we were born and on first blush the couple looked our age. Drip irrigation I spluttered, and then said, as I saw their blank faces; hmm it is a bit impersonal isn’t it. It is all a blur from thereon and probably only lasted a few minutes although it felt much longer. I think the Eurovision was mentioned. I recall that I resisted mentioning Sharansky for banalities’ sake.

Once it was over we left feeling confounded and indignant. How had we not come up with an answer to this question? Why weren’t we prepared? And over that feeling of dismay hovered the sense of the audacity of it all. Who were these Americans? We indulged in self-righteousness for a couple of minutes and then, perplexed, fell silent. Later that day Matanya said he had a response to their question. Relieved, I awaited to be put out of my misery. He looked at me and said: You know, in my lifetime, there has not been a moment in which I have been proud of American Jewry. That is what I should have said.

Adaptive work is defined as being “about change that enables the capacity to thrive. New environments and new dreams demand new strategies and abilities, as well as the leadership to mobilize them. As in evolution, these new combinations and variations help organizations thrive under challenging circumstances rather than perish, regress, or contract. Leadership, then, must wrestle with normative questions of value, purpose, and process … recognizing that all involved are a part of the problem and its solution.[1]”

How might our retreat anecdote illuminate where in our adaptive work as Israeli and American Jews we might be stuck? In the changing climate of the Israel-Jewish world relationship, with our specific attachments to historic values and loyalties, what might need to shift for all of us in order to thrive?

Here are three observations and reflections that I hope might shed light on these questions.

Observation #1: The immediacy with which Matanya and I in our roles as Israelis and Israel educators took to the task of delivering Israel’s pride-points is telling. As we understood it in the moment, we had been called upon to provide data to support the idea that Israel is a source of pride for the Jewish world. It appears that this notion is so tied up with our personal and professional self-understanding that not answering wasn’t an option: In other words, even when the countervailing evidence was in our face, i.e. That this really wasn’t a question, that answers weren’t what was being looked for, we, and I am extrapolating now to Israelis more generally, are hard wired to sing our “Israel as redemption song.”

Reflection #1: How do we as Israelis or Israel educators listen better to what our Jewish colleagues from overseas are asking from us? One can’t be open-minded simply as an act of will. In order to listen we have to at first acknowledge the centrality of our own Israeli-ness – the loyalties and attachments that form our own identity and life-stories whether it be as immigrants to Israel, as IDF soldiers, as parents or as Jewish citizens of the State. Observing and naming some of that centrality will allow us to begin to hear other voices. Shifting some of that centrality may require disappointing some of the people who have learnt to love and respect us for Israelis that we are. Neither the acknowledgement nor disappointment are easy but they might have given us the space to respond:

Hmm, right now I don’t know what to do with that question. It feels tough. I am curious though why you ask me that? I want to understand more where you are coming from.

Observation #2: If this wasn’t a question that required an answer, what was it? I want to suggest that this might have been an adaptive question: a question that is in search of a renegotiation of the loyalties and values that we once had and that seem to no longer to be serving us. In this adaptive context we look for the song beneath the words – what was the request? Two ideas for interpretations, somewhat connected:

The first: This was an expression of loss. The underlying request for relationship from us was to help share the pain of someone who has expectations of himself as a “good Jew, the son of his parents” to find pride in Israel but isn’t able to and for us, to serve as a vessel in some way to place this disappointment.

The second: This was a question that was trying to uncover identity politics. What side of the fence were we on and could the four of us be allies? As the Pew Report of 2016 surfaced, if 50% Americans identify as liberals and only 8% of Israelis do so, were my husband and I on the “right side” of this statistic?

Reflection #2: In both cases the same questions apply: Why can’t we say these things to one another? Why is the language so elusive to us?

And, more critically: if we are all part of the problem and solution, how might have the establishment’s Israel education community contributed to our alienation from one-another?

Not surprisingly, the educational establishment has developed approaches that has, reflecting its non-political orientation rendered politics beyond the fray. We have primarily two approaches for Israel education: a. inter-personal – where we meet others and form relations out of personal commonalities and differences b. educational – where we learn as a group building upon shared experiences inside and out of the classroom. What is lacking in this system is inter-group work, which assumes at its roots that all of us represent certain social, political, religious loyalties and will bring them into the room with us even whether we like it or not. Imagine the image of the porch that we inhabit as soon as we convene with others (see illustration): each of us bring our own ‘baggage’ or identity assumptions, privileges, loyalties to the porch, our shared area. It is much easier for us to choose to ignore who we are and what we represent in our ‘porch moments’ because in facing those representations we would have to acknowledge some of the deep divides between us.

We ignore our representations at our peril. Personal connections have little bearing on moving the deep-seated prejudices and biases we have towards one another.

Employing social and inter-group methods bring these allegiances into the room, it is risky and important work and we cannot desist from doing it. The extreme polls of apathy and politicization are too strong for the current political and emotional no man’s land.

We need to engage both above and below the neck – where our attachments lie. To paraphrase Matthew D. Lieberman in his groundbreaking book Social when he claims that education is fundamentally a social endeavor: We desperately want to learn but what we want to learn about is our social world – how it works and how we can secure a place in it that will maximize our social rewards and minimize the social pain we feel.[2]

This leads to Observation #3: The proposed response: You know, in all my 42 years, there has never been a moment in which I have been proud of American Jewry.

In the renegotiation of loyalties to our parents’ community, or to one another as American and Israeli Jews and all that these titles represent, questions of power, dominance and prominence emerge. This profoundly provocative intervention speaks to that. If we are going to make the Jewish People a shared endeavor in what ways are we able to hold each other accountable for our contributions or lack thereof. How do we find joint ways to replenish what we feel we both lack?

Blame and self-righteousness are not a strategy and yet the claim is profound. If you want us to behave differently then you are going to have to see us and yourselves differently. This brings us back to the original question posed to us and the bind within it. There is a phantasy that exists, for all of us perhaps; “please return me to days of yore: maybe these two Israelis will be able to redeem me from my Zionist emptiness.” In turn, part of the Israeli request is; please help us let go of our own ingrained centrality. Perhaps if we can let go of notions of our own Israeli centrality you will be freer to see your own culturally, religiously and beyond.

In conclusion, what principles can we learn from our story?

  • Recognize that adaptive work isn’t personal. It is about the identities that we represent in the system even when we think we are just being ‘ourselves.’
  • Have the courage to name and own identity packages (or baggage!) and codes of loyalty and values that make them up. While oftentimes we tend to recognize certain identity packages of this kind as a resource, remember that where change may be required, some identity orientations may serve as a constraint.
  • Be generous with yourselves and others; it will allow you to hear what people are asking of you with more awareness and empathy.
  • Engage below the neck. The work of change, precisely because it is about shifting deep-seated values and loyalties in the pursuit of progress, is intimate work of the heart.

This is us. We are evolving. The change in the relationship between Israel and world Jewry will require all of us to tolerate some loss. The shifting tectonic plates in this relationship are going to cause tremors; let’s be there for each other to carry some of that loss and from these shifts may it be that new light will enter between the cracks to illuminate our joint future.

[1] The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow, Chapter 2: The Theory Behind the Practice. 2009 Cambridge Leadership Associates
[2] Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman 2013: 282

Sarah Mali is Vice President of the Masa Leadership Center at Masa Israel Journey where she is dedicated to advancing the field of leadership education for young adults as a vehicle to building Jewish communal capacity globally. Sarah can be reached at: sarahm@masaisrael.org