A letter to our Hartman Community

A message in friendship, with prayers for peace

Since the founding of the Shalom Hartman Institute over 40 years ago, and throughout these decades of producing research on the biggest challenges facing Jewish life and running educational programs for the betterment of the Jewish people, we have adhered to a set of overarching commitments that help to characterize the stakes of our work, and our aspirations.

Our Core Commitments

First, our work – and the positioning of our headquarters in Jerusalem – reflect an appreciation of the centrality of the birth of the State of Israel in a modern Jewish religious consciousness and a willingness to engage in the audacious, creative process of ‘writing the Torah of Zionism’ for the Jewish people as we encounter the new possibilities that this historical reality has brought about.

Second, we understand the State of Israel to have originated as a collective project of the Jewish people worldwide, and we insist that it must remain that way – requiring all our wisdom and passion for its long-term thriving. We sometimes say that Israel is too big and too important to be left to Israelis alone. For Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people, it must forever engage the hearts, minds, concerns, and commitments of world Jewry. Just as Jewish suffering has historically been shared by Jews the world over, so must Jewish responsibility for Jewish peoplehood be shared as well.

Third, we see the State of Israel as one of the greatest tests the Jewish people have ever faced – a crucible of our values systems and essentially a public referendum on the quality of our commitments. The experience of power and sovereignty can be miraculous, but it is also a test. For Judaism and Jewish tradition to be worth continuing, they must address the central moral questions of the day and speak a coherent moral language in response. Put simply, the State of Israel is the largest platform the Jewish people has ever had to test the integrity of our commitments.

And fourth, we insist that the core moral and political aspirations of the State – that it be both a homeland for the Jewish people and a vibrant democracy, a homeland for Jews and for Palestinians, and a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens – are not competing ideas in tension with one another and certainly not contradictions, Rather, they are complex yet plausible aspirations for the State of Israel that can be honored through a serious commitment to Jewish and democratic values and institutions.

The fact that these commitments are difficult to attain, and sometimes complicated to articulate, does not make them invalid and does not exonerate our responsibility to bring them out. We believe that Judaism has always spoken in full sentences, in paragraphs, even in tractates – much more than in the slogans that work temporarily for political parties or that live easily on a bumper sticker. Moreover, our tradition is skeptical of populism, and questions whether the ideas that are the most popular and easy to implement are truly the morally serious ones. We have always had in our history prophets, elders, and sages with a moral message for the people; sometimes their viewpoints have been rejected by the people for all forms of expediency, but their wisdom is preserved for posterity, and represents the north star of Jewish continuity.

For the last several decades, we have benefited from the fact that many of these commitments were shared by Israelis and world Jewry – if not explicitly, then at least tacitly. Even as the attachment by some Jews around the world to Israel has eroded in recent decades, the overwhelming majority has maintained that a relationship to Israel constitutes a significant commitment in their Jewishness; even as some democratic norms have eroded in Israel with the failure of the negotiations with Palestinians and the likelihood of indefinite occupation, the pro-democracy forces in Israeli society have helped Israel keep its central commitments in alignment.

Our Concerns and Fears

The events of the last few months – and especially the last week – are constituting some of the most difficult tests to our commitments that we have ever seen. We feel shaken, and we know from many of you that you feel shaken as well.

In the last few weeks, we have seen a major outburst of violence including several terror attacks that have killed innocent Israeli civilians, including in our community – Elan Ganeles z”l, the brother of Gabriel, an alumnus of our Hevruta Gap-Year Program. We have seen lethal Israeli military incursions in the West Bank that have resulted in significant Palestinian casualties. We have watched – and participated in – historic demonstrations against radical judicial reforms that are wildly unpopular in the Israeli electorate, even as they are being advanced by a government that was just elected. And we have watched, in horror, retaliatory behaviors by a group of Jewish settlers in Huwara following one of the terror attacks. This violent response contradicts the essence of what we mean when we talk about the Jewish people thinking of ourselves as defined by the commitment to be ‘rahmanim, bnei rahmanim‘ – the compassionate, children of the compassionate.

In some of these moments we have raised our voices in protest; in others, in tears of loss; in others, in lament, or in anger.

It is not easy in moments like this to remain, as we will remain, a nonpartisan and pluralistic organization. And to do so, we are reminded that we define our work through a commitment to principles, beliefs, and values, and not to concrete political positions or other short-term strategies.

All our core commitments are now being tested.

There are too many in the Jewish people who are either taking the State of Israel and its long-term future for granted, or increasingly “writing it off” as a less central part of their Judaism.

There are many who are either giving up on the collective project that is Jewish peoplehood or being pushed out of that project against their will.

There are too many examples of the State of Israel simply falling short of the standard of moral excellence – the standard to which we are meant to hold us ourselves accountable – and instead capitulating too readily to the standard of ‘normalcy,’ or worse.

Thousands of international and pro-Israel observers are speaking up – in some cases, for the first time in public, because of the clarity of their concerns and the gravity of the issues – to express legitimate fears of Israel’s future as a democracy; and a growing number of Israel’s Palestinian citizens fear for their future.

Our Responsibilities

We have no intention of abating our commitments; if anything, the urgency of these commitments – stipulating them, and fighting for them – has never been stronger. At this moment, it is our duty to speak out, to critique the moral failures and dangers to Israel’s democratic future, and to be clear about our values as Jews and Zionists.

This is also the time to double down on the work that we do, with a sense of urgency and responsibility that we have never experienced. In Israel, we are accelerating the pace of our growth and innovation in our Center for Israeli Jewish Identity under the leadership of Ronit Heyd, building an activist network of teachers and principals towards the advancement of liberal Jewish and democratic values in the school system; in our new Center for Shared Society under the leadership of Rana Fahoum, breaking new ground in relationship-building and the building of a stronger civic culture of shared belonging between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens; in our Rabbanut Yisraelit rabbinic network, driving religious-based community organizing across the country; in our Center for Religion and State under the leadership of Tani Frank, pumping out legislative proposals and critical commentary to advance the agenda of religious pluralism; in our Kogod Research Center, under the leadership of Shraga Bar-On, we are working on new ways and methodologies to communicate the essential features of liberal Judaism, democracy, and religious Zionism for Israeli society; and with our voices – in our podcasts, in videos, in writing, and on the street – to sometimes shape and sometimes echo the emergent liberal democratic voice of Israeli society that is making a comeback.

It is equally critical that we galvanize North American Jewish leaders to speak, teach, and lead with a clear and passionate moral voice about the Israel we are fighting for, that we might support our partners in Israel and honor our commitments to Jewish peoplehood. We are doing this by rapidly growing our work with teens and young Jewish adults in our Wellspring suite of programs, which focus heavily on issues of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism and what it means to be engaged morally, spiritually, and intellectually with Israel at this critical juncture. We have devoted most of the episodes of our flagship podcasts, Identity/Crisis and For Heaven’s Sake, to strengthening the Jewish communal discourse around Israel and Jewish politics. We devoted all last summer’s programs for lay leaders and rabbis, and an issue of our journal Sources, to the question of “Why Israel Now?” inviting a new generation of our leaders to grow and shape their own courageous leadership voices for the needs of this moment. And we are planning our summer programs for this year for lay leaders, rabbis, heads of Jewish day schools, Hillel professionals, and college students which will be infused with the tagline “The Israel we are fighting for” – to make clear that our commitments are fueled by Torah, our moral convictions, and the responsibilities that come with being alive at this moment in Jewish history.

We do none of this alone. The Shalom Hartman Institute is proud to belong and contribute to an ecosystem of organizations in Israel and in the North American Jewish community who are committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel that lives up to our moral aspirations, and especially the many organizations who invite both Israelis and world Jewry to participate in shaping the Israel we imagine.

We want you to be with us and to stay with us. Now is not the moment for those who share our overarching commitments – who believe in the ideal – to check out because of the real. Now is the moment for world Jewry to raise up the Israelis and Palestinians who are working for change; for liberal Zionists to see our commitments as rooted in patriotism and loyalty to Israel’s abiding commitments which it laid out in its Declaration of Independence. Now is the time to build larger and broader coalitions, to acknowledge that we don’t have to agree on everything, but we need one another for the betterment of Israeli society. Now is the time to remember that many of our disagreements can be negotiated without the zero-sum framework that our politicians are so attached to, and that a culture of pluralism and principled debate is in our collective best interest. Now is the time for people of Torah everywhere to resist the binary between Jewish values and Jewish nationalism – to recognize that history has made such a distinction irrelevant, and that the work of Torah is in service of the current needs of the Jewish people and not in avoidance thereof. Now is the time for more sermons on Israel that foreground the Jewish tradition’s moral voice and the insistence that the best of our tradition continue to shape our hopes and dreams for how we as the Jewish people walk in the world, for more and better Israel education that doesn’t shy away from the challenges but uses them to help enlist the next generation to be part of the solution, for more philanthropy to Israeli NGOs so that we can do what Zionism has always done – it dreams of a better future, and it rejects the fatalism of the status quo.

We need each other more than ever. The Jewish people cannot walk away from one another, not on our watch. There is too much to do.

In friendship, and with prayers for peace –
Donniel Hartman
President, Shalom Hartman Institute
Yehuda Kurtzer
President, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America