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Can a Conversation about Israel be Apolitical?

San Diego begins a community-wide iEngage course

Reprinted with permission from San Diego Jewish Journal


Think back to the last conversation you had about Israel. Did it have to do with settlements? Terrorist attacks? Weapons? Was it about the Talmudic definition of justice? How rabbis talk about democracy? Did you leave the conversation feeling proud to be Jewish, or something else?

“What I’ve seen and what other people have seen,” says Ray Fink, an endocrinologist and longtime member of Congregation Beth El, “is that there has been increasingly divisions in the community relating to the topic of Israel, as opposed to unity.”

He says this problem is not unique to San Diego, but since this is where he has lived and worked since 1984, it’s where he started to tackle what he sees as a big problem for the Jewish people.

“The language was becoming very divisive. People would have a strong view on whatever the political issue of the day was. What we were losing was really a more values- and ideas-based vision of Israel and what that could look like.”

The most recent example of the polarizing effects a politicized modern Israel has on the Diaspora was the Iran Nuclear Deal.

“We saw very vindictive language used and it’s not healthy,” Fink says. “The Jewish community needs to be able to debate issues without demonizing other people. I think that was something that was very stark for us all.”

Diversity Essential to Jewish Thought

What was missing, for Fink and others, was a discussion of the “underlying principles that the state of Israel brings to Israel and to the Jewish people” and how those Jewish values can be used as a jumping-off point for more productive discourse about Israel.

“Diversity of opinion is essential to Jewish thought and thousands of years of tradition,” says Michael Rabkin, executive director of Hillel San Diego.

But first, the politics have to be set aside, both men say. Fink and Rabkin also share a connection to the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research and education center that offers courses and curriculum related to “Judaism in modernity, religious pluralism, Israel democracy, Israel and world Jewry, and the relationship with other faith communities,” according to its website.

Fink has spent the past seven summers taking various courses at the Institute. He has since encouraged others from San Diego to study at the Jerusalem campus, including his rabbi, Philip Graubart, and San Diego Jewish Academy’s head of school Chaim Heller. Michael Rabkin was one of 16 Hillel professionals from across the country to participate in a year-long fellowship with the Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem and remotely, last year.

Fink and Rabbi Graubart have hosted various Hartman courses at Congregation Beth El for a number of years, but starting this year, Fink will launch a community-wide effort where one course will be taught through 10 different organizations. The course is called Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Each organization is developing it’s own schedule, but they’ll all work from the Hartman’s 12-unit curriculum and most are targeting a January-May timeline to complete the course.

“What I found [through teaching Hartman courses at Beth El] is that people were very much inspired by this kind of learning,” Fink says. “They liked the ideas and values of this kind of education, the nuances of the complexities of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and just the quality of the material. So I decided it wasn’t sufficient for us to just teach it locally at Beth El. I particularly wanted to have multiple institutions and also younger people involved.”

Hartman Institute Curriculum Robust

He worked independently to raise $50,000 and get all 10 organizations signed on. Fink is careful to explain that Hartman Institute programs are a-political on purpose.

“It’s come in there, open mind, think, study Jewish texts, Jewish ideas. Whatever positions you have, what are the Jewish principles that underline the position? Whether it has to do with peace, whether it has to do with morality of war, a two-state solution, Women of the Wall. Doesn’t matter what your issue is, just understand a little bit from the Jewish perspective of the ideas that underline your views.”

“It’s a different way to create a tone of more civil discourse,” Rabkin says of Hartman’s curriculum. “It doesn’t mean it’s less robust. Nothing can be more robust. It appreciates the centrality of the intellectual integrity of a discussion that we’re having. And it really points to what the Jewish values are – personal values and Jewish values – that really shape the attitudes and political positions people are taking.”

Perhaps no group right now is more trapped in a politicized conversation about Israel than college students in the United States.

“We have lost a lot of youth to the broader issues with regards to Israel because we don’t go into the deeper values of the Israel and Zionist entity and the ideas behind the state of Israel,” Fink says. “If [young people] are forced to choose between a Jewish and a democratic state, growing up in America, they’ll always go for the democratic part and they don’t understand the nuances of the Jewish-plus-democratic part.”

The Hillel program marks a departure from traditional on-campus programming, one that Rabkin admits is an experiment. When most students think of Hillel, they think of free food and a friendly place to study between classes. But this Hartman course will ask students to add onto an already-packed schedule, in addition to presenting a new dialogue about Israel.

“The challenge is in making sure that when Israel is presented on campus, it’s not just presented as a source of conflict, or presented with a context of conflict because that tends to turn off the students from engaging in the subject at all. So what we’re trying to figure out is, how do we as a Jewish organization put forward the Jewish engagement first and foremost, before we put forward the Israel engagement?”

He says that in San Diego, he and his staff have found students to be “hungry for more” than the traditional expectations of Hillel on campus. So he was willing to try out the Hartman program.

“This is an attempt to create something that is based on a very rich educational curriculum. We can deliver something new and interesting and see if they bite. It’s experimental, we haven’t created this kind of a forum before, but we’ll see how it goes.”

To the extent that the discussion of Israel crosses over into the realm of politics, the conversation really can’t be avoided, especially on college campuses.

“It is such a visible piece to the dynamics of what’s happening on campus,” Rabkin says. “Whether we introduce it or not – and we do introduce Israel into the campus in a very positive way – it’s there. It’s a big part of the conversation that happens on college campuses.”

Perhaps the most a-political thing about the Hartman Institute is that it doesn’t purport to have the answers, Fink says.

“The Hartman is not an institute that is going to provide with solutions. It is not there to say this is the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Or] this is the solution for having a recognition of pluralism within Israel. That’s not what it’s about. It’s [intended] to put the ideas there on the table, make people understand what they are, and to think about things in a different way.”

The San Diego iEngage Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict community-wide course offering will kick off on Wednesday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. when the Hartman Institute’s Rabbi Lauren Berkun comes to Congregation Beth El to host “Talking About Israel: Foundations for a Values Discourse.”

The 10 organizations that will host the course are:

  • Congregation Beth El
  • Congregation Beth El Chai Young Adults
  • Congregation Beth Israel
  • Congregation Dor Hadash
  • Hillel San Diego
  • Jewish Federation of San Diego
  • Jewish Federation’s NextGen
  • Ohr Shalom Synagogue
  • San Diego Jewish Academy
  • Temple Solel

Each organization will post its own schedule. Contact the organization directly for more information. The kick-off event is free and open to the community.

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