Circles of Life

The circles we draw define the way we live our lives and perceive the world around us.  As humans, we often look to link events or non-events that we experience together to make them understandable.  We do so in an effort to communicate our hopes and fears and our desire to make sense of a world that is often seems chaotic and confusing.

In Becoming Human, Michael Tomasello outlines the way in which human beings develop and become social beings.  A big part of his theory is that human’s development is unique in the way that we understand the world over time and in the manner in which we do so in concert with fellow humans.  As we grow, we draw a small circle around a stuffed animal, ourselves, and the closest adult.  We giggle in delight and point at the teddy bear to get the attention of a friend or family. That circle is encompasses all we know and all we care about at that very moment. Young children look to make sense of a complicated world through discrete and simple connections. As we grow older our ability to draw bigger circles improves, but we don’t always take advantage that maturation.

When my father recently passed away after a brief but devastating illness, I sought to draw circles around events.  I looked for antecedents, causes, connections, and correlations.  I drew small, tight circles around days, hours, sometimes even minutes—all in an attempt to make sense of the unthinkable.  Some of those circles made; sense some of them were steeped in grief but devoid of logic or reasoning.  Most recently,  I decided to try and draw a circle around the totality of his 72+ years and not the final 17 days of his life. It is often difficult but those circles seem to be more accurate and authentic.  His illness falls within the larger circle—it is not a circle unto itself.

What is true in our own human relationships is often true at a much larger and broader scale.  We often draw circles around political or cultural events to help us better understand things.  However, sometimes those circles, instead of helping us develop a clear eyed view of the world, reflect our own bias.  The circles we draw exclude the information that does not seem to fit the story we are looking to tell, and oftentimes those circles are smaller and more exclusive than they should be.

The poster child for this bias is the “crisis” in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.  It has become the accepted wisdom in many corners of the world that the relationship is in tatters and is maybe even irreparably damaged.  Many have sought to draw a circle around specific events or small periods of time and make them the defining moments of the relationship.  A prime example of this small circle drawing appeared in an op-ed published in the New York Times titled American Jews and Israeli Jews are Headed for A Messy Breakup.  In this piece, Jonathan Weismann contends that events over the recent few years indicate that, in his words “A great schism is upon us.”  He points to singular and albeit troubling events and rifts that exist between the two communities.  It has become a common theme in the Jewish and secular press—drawing circles around specific isolated incidents and declaring the end of the relationship between American Jewry and our brothers and sisters in Israel.  They draw a circle around a few events: a Conservative Rabbi who was detained in Israel, a political divide on the current President of the United States, or a handful of malcontents that protest during a Birthright Trip and declare all is lost.

However, in drawing that circle they ignore the tens of thousands of young people that not only visit Israel on Birthright but the myriad other trips and study abroad opportunities that exists. Just this winter the largest ever trip to Israel by a synagogue took place.  They excise from their circle organizations like JInspire that sends thousands of adults to Israel every year, they ignore the tens of thousands of people who give of their time and money to: AIPAC, JNF, Friends of the IDF, Magen David Adom, and the hundreds of other Israeli organizations that American Jews are connected with.  They exclude from their circle the number of young people who now see Israel because of its Start-Up Nation’s culture as a place where they want to be connected to and with.

Weismann’s “great schism” circle is also small and tight; it does not reach back nor does it extend forward.  It is an artifact of the twitter world in which the circles we draw only reach as far and wide as the timelines on our phone screens.  I chose to look at the fullness of my father’s life, taking into account not only the entire breadth of his full life but all that his life set in motion that will come after him.  We need to draw a bigger circle around the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.  That is not to say we should ignore or neglect the very real issues or challenges in the Israel-Disapora relationship.  However, drawing a circle around just those problems is neither a fair nor accurate picture and in the end, will only serve those who wish to see this relationship fail.

About the Author
Michael spent the early part of his career as a Jewish communal professional, transitioning to work on a wide range of local, national, and international public policy issues and political campaigns, then moving on to become an educator. He is now EVP of a large summer camp company.
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