Tracy Frydberg

Building global Jewry’s growth mindset requires dialogue

The generation that received the 10 commandments could not be the one to carry them into the promised land.

As Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed writes, “And just as the Deity used a gracious ruse in causing them to wander perplexedly in the desert until their souls became courageous … and until, moreover, people were born who were not accustomed to humiliation and servitude.”

The Israelites were freed, but their mindset stayed behind. It took four out of the five Books of Moses for it to catch up.

In the last 75 years, we’ve gone through a similar journey, transforming into a people with a thriving diaspora and nation-state. Yet often American Jewry and Israelis – particularly, our organizing bodies and governing institutions — maintain the mindset of scarcity that accompanies the lived and inherited experience of oppression. This prevents us from developing a healthy collective story spanning the divides.

This Shavuot, the holiday marking our becoming a nation, with the judicial crisis constantly looming, now is the time to consider the story we were told and wish to tell regarding why and who we are as a people.

Today’s rising generation is empowered by the combined legacy of our ancestors and the confidence that comes with Jewish freedom to cultivate the kind of growth mindset necessary to tell this story.

A growth mindset is a peoplehood mindset.

A peoplehood mindset prioritizes a practiced commitment to a fellow Jew above if not equal to commitments to G-d, state, or the world. It allows one to make room for the full spectrum of the Jewish experience without fear that differing expressions will encroach on their power. It understands Israel’s challenges and the diaspora’s challenges within a global Jewish context.

As of now, neither side has cultivated one.

The generation that built the State of Israel and a thriving diaspora was driven by the experience and fear of galut, exile. Indeed, it was Israel’s creation which unintentionally canceled the development of a global “peoplehood mindset,” when the Jewish state came to supersede “the nation” as the global Jewish story.

Israel’s founders built a new Israeli identity that encompassed a default Jewish identity and a sense of purpose that maxed out at Israel’s borders. In the Israeli narrative, “diaspora” was reduced to an outside concept, a source of immigration and support.

In the US, a similar generation produced a diverging narrative to distance themselves from the notion of “nation” out of fear of dual-loyalty claims. In 1949, American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein ridiculed President Chaim Weizmann for taking ownership of the Jewish “nation,” that is, the entire Jewish people, in a speech. In the American context, the term “nation” is a body politic. In Hebrew, the term “am” denotes both a nation and a people, making the terms “Jewish nation” and “Jewish people” one and the same.

As a consequence of these events, today, when what could have been the battle cry of peoplehood, “Am Echad”, is chanted at Israeli protests, for and against Judicial reform, it by no means includes the other half of the Jewish nation living outside Israel. This is to the oblivion of American Jewish tourists wandering around Tel Aviv with “I love Bagatz” – Israel’s supreme court–t-shirts, who feel invested in Israel’s story.

So here we find ourselves without a functioning narrative about who we are as a nation. Changing our reality begins with mindset.

Mindset is cultivated through practice and the practice of peoplehood is dialogue.

Intentional dialogue encounters are one of the only tools available to get us into the “narrative therapy for the nation” we so desperately need to overcome apathy and fear, build deep commitments, and resolve conflicts.

A recent two-day dialogue experiment between millennial American Jewish organizational leaders and Israeli government advisors and civil servants highlights the point.

In a peak moment of the dialogue, an American stood up and asked the Israelis, “Do you care about us as much as we care about you?”

As one American articulated following the encounter, “A huge challenge in the dialogue was that for the most part, the Americans understood much more about Israel and the Israelis than the Israelis did about us.”

As another put it, “We aren’t strangers to the dialogue.”

Certainly, the Americans have been talking about Israel for years. For them, the stakes are high.

“Of course, we care about you,” the Israelis responded. “We are here, aren’t we?”

Following the encounter, Israelis overwhelmingly expressed a positive personal experience and interest to continue, particularly if it included a “Reverse Birthright” trip to America. Their baggage was lighter, and this allowed them to arrive, while skeptical, curious and open-minded. For them, the stakes are low.

Yet, each side showed up.

In any dialogue, this alone holds weight.

But shifting mindsets calls for continued engagement. It will demand that Israelis place themselves within a larger Jewish story. It will require that Americans challenge their own assumptions of what the Jewish state is and who living and breathing Israelis really are.

Even if it take 40 years, this practice, exercised at scale and on repeat across the Jewish world, has the potential to generate a new collective story. It has the power to bring about a living peoplehood mindset leading us to the promised land.

About the Author
Frydberg is the director of the Tisch Center for Jewish Dialogue at the ANU Museum. She is a former adviser to two ministers of diaspora affairs.
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