Zack Bodner
Seeker | Writer | Storyteller | Community Builder | Doer

Purple Places: How American Jews might engage with Israel right now, and how our institutions can help

“I think there needs to be a way for North American Jewry to find a new voice.”
-Donniel Hartman, (“Israel is too important to leave to Israelis,” For Heaven’s Sake Podcast, Feb. 15, 2023)

In Jonathan Sacks’ brilliant book Morality, he quotes Barack Obama, who said, “If all you’re doing is throwing stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” Sacks makes a compelling case that the brilliance of Judaism is that we are encouraged to argue. The Tanach is filled with stories of prophets arguing with God. The Talmud is based on arguments between rabbis. The ability for Judaism to live and evolve over the generations is due to our willingness to engage with those with whom we disagree.

But in the end, Sacks reminds us that what matters most is how the argument is made. Is it made for the sake of victory or the sake of truth? The school of Hillel “won” out over Shammai because they were kindly and modest. They allowed Shammai to make their arguments first. The school of Hillel insisted on argument for the sake of truth, which was ultimately an argument for the sake of heaven.

These are important lessons as we struggle with how Diaspora Jews and Israelis should engage with each other – especially in moments like this, when Israelis are taking to the streets by the tens of thousands to challenge the political decisions of their government and Diaspora Jews want to weigh-in as well. So, let’s start with the baseline: I believe we must engage with our brothers and sisters around the globe. We cannot avoid this vital part of our heritage because it’s difficult or uncomfortable. We must argue, debate and wrestle. For if we don’t, then we’ll likely just drift away from each other altogether.

Yes, those of us in the Diaspora must be welcomed by our Israeli siblings to be a part of the discourse, as some are doing more vociferously these days, like Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Matti Friedman did recently in The Times of Israel. But, for Israelis to welcome us, we must show them that we understand the how of the argument. We need to earn their trust by allaying their fears that we are only criticizing and arguing for the sake of victory. We must reassure them that we are engaging with modesty and kindliness. We must argue for truth, instead.

By the way, it is reasonable to expect that people be knowledgeable about the situation before they weigh-in. Additionally, we must be humble enough to welcome Israelis to engage with our internal Diaspora arguments as well. If they want to weigh-in on how we “do Jewish” in the US, and they are willing to be mensches about it too, then we ought to welcome them (just as we want them to welcome us into their debates). That’s what partnership means. That’s what it means to argue for truth, not victory.

So, How Should We Engage?

Engaging with each other is absolutely crucial to the future of Jewish Peoplehood. But as Donniel Hartman said, North American Jews need to find a new voice for how we engage. No longer are the old models relevant. The Zionism of “Diaspora negation” is dead. The Zionism of “you don’t live here, so you don’t get a say” is dead. The Zionism of “the rich American uncle” is dead. Those are all characteristics of Zionism 2.0. Today, we live in a new era – Zionism 3.0, where two strong, successful, vibrant centers of Jewish life exist. Jews in Israel and Jews in North America are making unprecedented contributions to Jewish life, and we must create a new model for how to engage with each other.

So, how do we engage? Especially right now, as Diaspora Jews who care deeply about Israel are worried about what’s happening there, how do we argue for the sake of truth? What is the appropriate how that allows us to express our views and not just be ignored as an irrelevant annoyance? And second, how should our communal institutions organize themselves in this moment to be a vehicle for such engagement? How should our Jewish community come together to be most effective right now?

First, it is imperative that we make our voices heard as individuals. If we care, we need to speak up. Israelis can’t expect North American Jews to care about Israel and then tell us that we don’t get to have an opinion. As with all things in life – if you care, you have a point of view. But, we ought to do it with grace and humility. We ought to have empathy because though it is our Homeland too, we don’t live there. We ought to express compassion, because what our brothers and sisters in Israel are going through is painful and difficult. We ought to also praise Israel when they get it right, and not just criticize them when they get it wrong. In the words of Jonathan Kessler, Founder of Heart of a Nation, we need to “better, not batter” each other. This is the how.

And, How Can Jewish Institutions Help?

Jewish institutions have a vital role to play here, but how they can help depends on their purpose. There are two types of organizations: the advocacy organization and the community-building organization. On the spectrum of how we gather, advocacy organizations sit on the ends, and community-building organizations sit in the middle. Advocacy organizations bring together like-minded people to fight for what they believe is right. That’s the purpose of advocacy organizations. They exist to advocate, and in so doing, they plant a flag on one end of the political spectrum and naturally create a constituency that is homogenous. They are made up of people who agree with each other.

On the other hand, community-building organizations bring together broad, diverse groups of people with varying opinions. They bring together a rich array of backgrounds and points of view, and if done right, they are extremely heterogenous. They build, in the classic sense of the word, community.

Jewish advocacy organizations must keep fulfilling their missions. They need to keep fighting the good fight. They need to rally and protest, write passionate letters to the editor, and make statements that are published in the papers. They need to do this from the left and the right, and they must not give up. That’s the role of the advocacy organization in the ecosystem of North American Jewish institutional life today. But again, the how is important to consider. No one likes to see family members fight in public. Outside observers cringe because it is uncomfortable to watch, while the individuals actually in the argument get defensive and aren’t inclined to back down in public. So having grace, tact, respect and empathy go a long way when advocating for a point of view.

Meanwhile, there is a different role for community-building organizations. The role of these organizations is to create safe spaces that welcome various points of view. These organizations must convene those who might ordinarily not share the same space, and bring them together to argue for truth. It is not the role of these organizations to endorse one particular candidate, one specific point of view, or one political position – American or Israeli. It’s their role to hold multiple, possible truths at the same time.

We all know of a Jewish institution that was meant to be a community-builder, but veered into advocacy, where the leadership took a political stance and some of their constituents left because they felt alienated. We know people in those towns who’d never join that particular institution or give to it, because their political views are at odds with the leadership’s. Those organizations have veered into the advocacy side of the spectrum and become “blue” or “red.” What we need right now, more than ever, are community-building organizations to remain purple places.

Protecting Purple Places

The role of the Jewish Community Centers in North America today is to be the purple places. JCCs must be the Shabbat Table of the community, the living room, the place where the whole family comes together to argue, debate, disagree, and then eat, laugh, sing, and hug.

We need places where Trump-lovers and Trump-haters feel welcome, where Bibi-lovers and Bibi-haters feel welcome, where observant Jews and secular Jews – and non-Jews too – feel welcome. We must welcome them all. Only in those purple places, will we create the new voice of North American Jewry. As we become more partisan, more polarized, and more divided, we need spaces where we can come together despite our differences. That is the role of the JCC in the 21st century, and it could not be more important.

Why JCCs? Because JCCs have no litmus tests to enter our doors. There is no political agenda. Every single person is welcome – no matter their level of practice, knowledge, or even their religion. JCCs are the places that can help create a new voice for North American Jewry when it comes to Israel because JCCs are not locked into one, single way of engaging with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish homeland.

[In case you’re looking for guidance on how a JCC might do this, the Z3 Project at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto is giving organizations the tools to help us craft that new voice. We are reimagining a new relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. We are celebrating a diversity of voices, bringing together the left and the right, the religious and the secular, the Israeli and the Diaspora Jew. We are engaging as equal partners, moving beyond the old, paternalistic relationship of the 20th century. We are striving for unity, not uniformity, where purple places, not red or blue ones, become the living rooms of the entire Jewish community.]

This is not easy. We must be vigilant, stay strong, and not give in to those who want us to stake out a political position. Without fail, these voices are passionate and persuasive. They care deeply, come from a place of real love for Israel, and are genuinely scared of what they’re seeing in the Jewish Homeland. Some of these voices are extremely generous to our institutions too. So, while I applaud them and encourage them to continue their fight with the advocacy groups, we must not permit our purple places to turn deep shades of blue or red. If we fail at this, then we will inevitably alienate important segments of our population and lose our ability to be the community living rooms.

For the JCC to be the place where we have the legitimacy to make arguments for the sake of truth and not victory, we must not throw our support behind those partisan voices. We must welcome all voices. We must not endorse specific political positions. We must be the community conveners. To do that, we must paint our doors purple.

In the end, Diaspora Jews must engage with Israel, and vice versa. We need to engage with each other from a place of humility, creating arguments for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of victory. Jewish institutions can help by sticking to their missions: advocacy groups ought to advocate, and community-building organizations should create purple places that don’t endorse a particular position. That’s how we’ll go far, and not just throw stones. And ultimately, that’s how together, we will shape a new voice in Diaspora-Israel relations.

About the Author
Zack Bodner is the President and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA and the Founder of the Z3 Project, an effort to reimagine Diaspora-Israel relations. He is the author of "Why Do Jewish: A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood," a #1 Amazon New Release in Religion and Philosophy. Learn more at Zack lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three kids.
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