By Zack Bodner
All of a sudden, there seems to be no hotter topic than “the divisions between Israel and American Jewry.” Articles have been published in scholarly journals and in the mainstream press, books are being written, conferences are being held and coalitions are being built. This is good news, since it means the issue is becoming a priority for many within the Jewish establishment. But an undue focus on our divisions is obscuring and obstructing work on the infinitely more important question: “What can Israel and American Jewry learn from our differences in order to build a secure, vibrant and pluralistic Jewish future?”
As we see it, the problem is two-fold. First, too many North American Jews define their relationship with Israel exclusively by what they disapprove of, namely with “the occupation” and the Chief Rabbinate. This means that their engagement with nearly half of their fellow Jews in the world is reduced to wagging their fingers at the Jewish State. Meanwhile, too many Israelis dismiss American Jews as irrelevant. They don’t understand why our support is vital to Israel’s security, they don’t see what we contribute to the future of Jewish life, and some believe we won’t even be Jewish in a generation due to assimilation or anti-Semitism.
In any relationship, if the bulk of your interactions are critical, over time the relationship will not be able to withstand the weight of the negativity. Partners who only perceive one another’s faults are neither seeing nor affirming each other’s value. According to the latest studies on relationships, for every one criticism the partners must share five compliments for the relationship to last. We can apply this same notion to the relationship between Israeli and American Jewry.
This is ultimately a problem of focusing too much attention on what divides us, and not enough on what unites us – which is why it is time for Zionism to evolve to its third phase, Zionism 3.0, in which we transcend our differences.
Introducing Zionism 3.0
Why 3.0? Because Zionism 1.0 was the pre-1948 Zionism of the pioneers like Theodore Herzl. It was based on the notion that we need our own state to be safe from anti- Semitism and persecution.
Zionism 2.0 was the Zionism of the builders, like David Ben Gurion. It was the Zionism of building a nation and it was characterized by the “rich American uncle” notion, meaning that those in the Diaspora who had the money, but didn’t have the chutzpah to make aliyah, had to support those who did because the new, young struggling State of Israel needed Diaspora resources to exist. It was also the Zionism of “Diaspora negation” – meaning that it was built on the notion that the Jewish future would lie only in Israel, and that once Israel was strong enough to accept and sustain all Jews, the Diaspora would fade away. Thus, it was the Zionism of Diaspora Jewry having a stake without a say.
Destiny has its own path, however, which is why Zionism 3.0 – or Z3 for short, is the next phase of the Zionist movement. It reflects this unique moment, when for the first time ever in Jewish history, there is both a strong, sovereign Jewish Homeland and a strong, flourishing Jewish Diaspora. These two major centers of Jewish life (Israel and North America) are both thriving, and are both making transformative contributions to the Jewish future.
For example, in Israel, the Jewish people have resurrected Hebrew as a modern language and are using a Jewish calendar to define its weeks, months and years. Revolutionary Jewish art and technology is emerging out of Israel, and Israeli organizations like IsraAid are saving lives around the world – truly being a light unto the nations.
Meanwhile, innovative and authentic Jewish practices abound in North America. The creation of new Jewish rituals, putting our Jewish texts online to democratize text study, and the proliferation of cultural Shabbat dinner celebrations are a few examples of innovative American Jews finding new ways to make Jewish life meaningful today and to extend the vocabulary of Jewish expression.
These two major centers of Jewish life are blossoming, and we must create a new paradigm for how we engage with each other – a way that transcends our political and religious differences so we can work together to elevate each other and share the wonders that each has accomplished.
Jews in both places add to the other – not just when it comes to security, but with each other’s spiritual and cultural contributions as well. Not only are we so much better together, but we will be much worse off if we can’t stick together. If American Jews stop supporting Israel, it is a national security risk to Israel; and a weakened Israel is catastrophic for World Jewry.
This is why we should not let political frameworks or religious differences dictate the nature of our relationship. Our shared sense of Peoplehood and our shared Jewish destiny must frame our relationship.
Unity, Not Uniformity
This is about unity, not uniformity. We will not iron out all our differences, nor should we strive for that. Our people have been divided since the very beginning – since Jacob and Esau. Even Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued over every halachic decision. During our darkest hour, during the Shoah, Jewish partisan fighters disagreed with Jewish councils in the ghetto over how best to save Jewish lives. When the modern State of Israel was being reborn, American Jews who did not support the creation of the State argued mercilessly with those who did. And even the underground Jewish armies that fought for the liberation of Israel battled with each other.
But if Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky could come together despite their enormous differences, so can we. Ben Gurion once wrote to Jabotinksy saying, “…whatever may happen in Zionism in the future, my hand will always be extended to you in times of friendship and stress in spite of all party opposition.” To which Jabotinsky replied, “I grasp your hand in true friendship.”
Throughout our history, we have remained brothers and sisters. That is the familial relationship that should guide us. Sibling relations are even stronger than marriage: you can’t divorce your sibling. Yes, you can fight with each other, but siblings will always share a common destiny and a common legacy.
If we are to share one destiny, we must find a new way to engage with each other, and like all relationships, it starts with listening to each other.
Scaling the Z3 Conversation
For the last four years, the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto has hosted the Z3 Conference, a major gathering founded on the ideology of Zionism 3.0, with a unique commitment to three organizing principles.
First, we bring together the left and the right, the orthodox and the secular and those who will not publicly criticize Israel along with those who will, to openly discuss Israel – World Jewry relations.
Second, we bring Israeli and Diaspora Jews together to have this conversation, so we are not each just talking to ourselves. Together, we are talking tachlis about how each can better recognize what the other half contributes to the Jewish future.
Finally, we don’t just focus on what divides us. We highlight what unites us: our shared legacy, our shared destiny and our shared sense of Peoplehood.
We have found that this formula works. We now livestream our conference all over the world. The international press is writing about it. Over 1,100 attendees came to Silicon Valley for the event this past year – including hundreds of Israelis. Now Jewish institutions all over the country are asking us to help them replicate this program. They tell us that Israel is a “toxic issue” in their community and they want help restarting these conversations.
As we work together, the Z3 Project aims to build a movement of like-minded people who share the belief that we need a new Zionist paradigm that transcends our differences. In America, we want people to have this conversation all over the country: in JCCs, synagogues, and Hillels, yes, but also in homes and at Shabbat dinner tables. We are partnering with outstanding organizations that share our belief that we can create a new way for how Israel and World Jewry engage with each other.
Meanwhile in Israel, we have partners who are shifting the way Israeli Jews see American Jewry, working on how the system educates about Diaspora Jewry, and working on policy changes in Israel. There is real work happening on the ground in Israel and we want to amplify their efforts.
Israel and the Diaspora have two separate dreidels: the Diaspora “Sham” is the Israeli “Po.” If that doesn’t embody the gaps between us perfectly then I don’t know what does! But the symbol of Z3 is a new 5-sided dreidel that has the letters representing the words “Ness Gadol Haya Sham V’Po” – a great miracle happened here AND there – because Z3 insists that Jewish Peoplehood is thriving in both places.
Indeed, great miracles are happening here and there. Let’s celebrate them together.
Zack Bodner is the CEO of the OFJCC in Palo Alto, home of the Zionism 3.0 Conference and the Z3 Project. Zack has spent 25 years working on America-Israel relations in the worlds of politics, academia and community organizing.
The complete set of essays comprising this edition is in the process of being published individually on eJP.