Ariel Levinson

Changing the conversation

If we want a strong relationship between young Americans and Israel, they need to meet Israelis, not Palestinians
Illustrative. Birthright participants at one of the organization's Mega events, gathering thousands at Jerusalem's International Convention Center (Dudi Vaknin/Flash 90)
Illustrative. Birthright participants at one of the organization's Mega events, gathering thousands at Jerusalem's International Convention Center (Dudi Vaknin/Flash 90)

In his piece, “The American ‘Zionist’ assault on Israel,” Daniel Gordis asks the progressive wing of American Jewry to stop patronizing. Their hubris, writes Gordis, causes them to try to impose their outlook on a Jewish-Israeli public whose world view is completely different from their own. According to Gordis, American and Israeli Jewry are very different from one another, with profound differences in their ideological foundations. American Judaism is universalist and views Judaism as a religion, versus Israeli Judaism, which is particularistic and views Judaism as a nationality. In order to create a sincere dialogue, he continues, the two communities must accept each other as they are and know how to change themselves in order to change the discourse and the conversation.

It is my understanding that, at the moment, this discussion is at a dead end and Gordis’s piece not only inaccurately describes the problem, but actually exacerbates it, and harms our chances of reconnecting the two communities. In my opinion, the only way to create a partnership between the communities and to heal the existing rifts is to set aside the conversation about Israel and replace it with a conversation about what we have in common, and not about what separates us. Hence, the most appropriate and relevant topic of conversation should be our Jewish identity in the 21st century. And on this topic, not only is our common denominator much greater than our differences, but our common future is much more dependent on it than on the question of Israel’s policy in the territories.

The Big Questions about community, Jewish identity in a changing world, renewal versus tradition, Jewish continuity of younger generations and their connection to Jewish culture are the questions we have in common. These are the questions that will determine our fate. In this joint conversation, not only is there no patronizing or arrogance, but both sides enter with a modicum of modesty, with an appropriate amount of perplexity, and with more questions than answers. This is what will inspire us all with the possibilities of joint creation.

In addition, not only are the questions shared, but also their conceptual framework is the same — the idea that Judaism cannot be reduced to solely a religion, nor solely to nationalism, but that we must see Judaism as a culture, a common culture with multiple presentations in text, ritual, ceremony, in food, music and more. The common ideological platform that I propose here is not new: both in the United States and in Israel, the most influential and relevant young initiatives for the future of the Jewish people are those that offer a rethinking of the place of the synagogue, the community and movement affiliation; those that take a fresh look at the significance of a particular identity in the context of a global (and virtual) village; those that are re-envisioning the role of leadership and social entrepreneurship, and creating new models to re-connect the younger generation to the “mother culture.”

Therefore, it is not only American liberals and progressives who are the natural partners in this conversation, but there are many Israelis who share this approach, some even attend the very institute where Gordis presides. Today, you do not have to be Anglo-Saxon or belong to the Reform or Conservative movements in Israel in order to identify with the views of liberal Diaspora Jews. There are thousands of secular Israeli young adults who are engaged in the creation of a pluralistic Jewish culture based on the foundation of a Jewish democratic society, and on social and political reform, drawing inspiration from Jewish sources and heritage.

Today, the extremist voices dominate the discourse and the liberal Jewish voice is not as loud as it needs to be in order to affect the change we are seeking in the public discourse in Israel. This voice needs to be amplified through dialogue with our natural allies overseas. This new and young Israeli Judaism seeks to change Israeli society in a very similar way to what progressive American Jews hope for. It seeks to abolish or significantly change the nation-state law, strengthen the democratic foundations of the State of Israel, end the occupation, dismantle the Chief Rabbinate, strive for equal rights, strengthen the voices of the periphery and empower the processes of modernization in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox societies. It is the sane and centrist Israeli voice, the voice that portrays a hopeful future, a voice that seeks to find its reverberations throughout Israel and the Jewish world, a voice that can be articulated in two languages, in Hebrew and English, both parts of a single shared tradition.

What bridge does Daniel Gordis offer? What vision does he have? Indeed, as he describes, 82 percent of Israeli Jews today identify themselves as right or center-right, but more than 60% still believe that the two-state solution is preferable and feasible, so in fact there is a much broader consensus between the American and Israeli communities than Gordis presents. It is the Israeli and American leadership that is contributing to dismantling our broad common denominator. True, sometimes my overseas allies may exaggerate, and perhaps they are not always completely accurate, but they are still my allies. Gordis’s claims invite to center-stage the voices that separate — the populistic, nationalistic and particularistic. IfNotNow may represent a voice, which is difficult to hear, but it is still a distinctly Jewish voice. Despite the challenge, I deal with it and do not run away from it. We Israelis have learned only too well in recent years what happens when an entire camp is delegitimized because of a single organization.

Gordis is angry at the demand of the American Jewish left to change the content of Birthright trips to Israel. I do not dispute the central role of Taglit-Birthright Israel in shaping and strengthening the connection between young American Jews and Israel, but why does Gordis not ask himself honestly why the numbers of participants are dropping? Why fewer young Americans are choosing to sign up for Birthright and more are choosing alternative or independent journeys to Israel? Gordis suffers here from either insincerity or unwillingness to delve deeper into the problem, focusing solely upon contradicting the other side. I do not know whether I agree with all of Peter Beinart’s and others’ proposals to change Birthright’s curriculum, but it is clear from their suggestions that they are listening to the questions that concern the younger generation, questions that Gordis is unable or unwilling to confront.

I believe that the key to renewing the vitality of the relationship between young Americans and Israel is not in listening to the Palestinians, but by listening to the Israelis. And here Gordis and I agree: young Americans should meet young Israelis, engage, learn, and argue with one another, and form a new kind of conversation. Currently, most of the time on Birthright programs, is spent passively listening to “expert” lectures and meeting soldiers with whom they exchange more fluids than words, opinions, and ideas. In both cases, there is little conversation and certainly no deep encounter. Young Americans need to meet their counterparts — students, entrepreneurs, young leaders — people who are similarly inquisitive about their Jewish identity in a changing world and jointly exploring their need for community and meaning. Through these encounters, empathy, solidarity and mutual caring can emerge and create a truly productive and inspirational discourse.

About the Author
Dr. Ariel Levinson is the founder and director of the Jerusalem Bina Secular Yeshiva.
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