It seems as though we wake up every other morning to the news of a new “crisis” that is breaking down the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Coalition politics and religious observance continue to mix in unnatural ways, sparking the ire of both American Jewish leaders and Israeli decision makers who simply cannot find common ground, though they no doubt value the same things.
The underlying issue, and the reason why this relationship continually cycles back to discord and discontent, is that the two sides do not view their alliance through the same prism. In fact, they never have.
While Israelis see themselves as the custodians of the Jewish homeland and seek unquestioned support from their brothers and sisters in the US, the American Jewish community simply cannot see beyond their decades old role as benefactors of the Zionist dream. And who can blame them.
For seven decades, American Jewry has been investing in a state that they believed would showcase the very best of Jewish values. Thus far, however, it is a haphazard work-in-progress that irks and confuses them at every turn. While cultural differences no doubt contribute to the contention, the fact remains that Israel is far from the paragon of virtue that its American investors had hoped for, and they are growing weary. What’s more, our Jewish millennials cannot and do not want to connect to an entity that does not represent their values.
But we cannot allow Israel to be seen as a disappointment, nor as a charity case. After all, it is the only country we can truly call our own, and we know in our hearts that we can do better, that so much more is possible. As such, the onus is on Israel to give American Jews, especially millennials in search of their identities, new reasons to want to connect with the land of our shared heritage, starting with profound pride in our ability to focus our renowned innovative abilities on societal advancement.
As I see it, the change we seek begins with a paradigm shift, from the intense fear upon which Israel was built and continues to run, to one of diversity and acceptance.
Though years have passed since the Holocaust and our bittersweet victory in the War of Independence, we are still plagued by thoughts of bloodshed and loss, and we continue to construct walls to keep out those who swore to kill us and drive us into the sea. In the process, we have also constructed invisible barriers – within ourselves and throughout our national infrastructure – to keep our neighbors, our fellow citizens, at arm’s length.
We live as one people divided, never truly acknowledging our shared nationality due to a preoccupation with divisive labels – Ashkenazim and Sephardim, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs – and Israel’s growth has stalled. What’s more, Israel stands on the brink of financial and ideological bankruptcy due to this pervasive culture of exclusion that infects almost every aspect of Israeli life, as well as an educational system that is inaccessible to the country’s minorities.
So, we must start there, with educational opportunities for all that will solidify our economic health and change the face of our shared society. We have no need for another ivory tower, nor can we accept more empty promises about multicultural programming from our government officials. Rather, we must establish educational frameworks that empower populations that are otherwise underrepresented in Israeli higher education, including men and women from Ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian and Arab backgrounds and individuals with disabilities, to develop a voice all their own, make a seamless transition into the workforce, and become productive citizens of the new Israel.
Our universities must teach applied studies that are economically relevant to all who wish to learn. We must insist on excellence and creativity, and employ the best and most diverse faculty and staff that Israel has to offer. And above all, we must harness the power of education to promote diversity and inclusion and produce leadership that mends social gaps.
What I have outlined above describes the educational programming at Ono Academic College, the “social start-up” that I launched over 22 years ago, which now boasts more than 14,500 students from across Israel’s religious, cultural, and ethnic spectrum, and satellite campuses in major cities and development towns around the country. But while we have seen seeds of success on our own campuses, having helped thousands of students from all sectors of Israeli society achieve personal fulfillment and professional success, I understand that we are still a start-up, that this is just the beginning of something so much bigger.
The real success will come when institutions like Ono are no longer the exception but the rule, when multiculturalism becomes part and parcel of Israeli life, and when we as a nation actively strive to identify and eliminate the barriers that prevent the full participation of minorities at school, at work and in our communities.
When equity guides our decisions about social reform and Israel becomes a place where conflicting visions and ideologies are welcome, we will not only become the bastion of Jewish values that American Jewry had always dreamed of, but we will capture the attention – and the imagination – of the entire world. By reshaping higher education in Israel into a training ground for inclusion and multicultural understanding, we will create new points of connection for Jewish millennials around the world, and we will even find new reasons to believe in ourselves.