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Havruta 7: ‘Engaging Israel: Beyond the Crisis Narrative,’ Now Available

The issue discusses the new Jewish disenchantment with Israel and calls for a new narrative to enrich the significance of Israel in Jewish life
Stuart Schoffman is a research fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute. For more than 20 years, as a writer for the Jerusalem Report and Jewish newspapers in North America, he has combined Jewish scholarship with reportage and analysis of politics, religion and culture. His translations from Hebrew include books by the Israeli authors A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev. Before making aliya in 1988, he worked as a journalist for Fortune and Time magazines in New York, and

  • Havruta 7: Engaging Israel: Beyond the Crisis narrative is now available online. Click here to read.
The sensitive question of Israel-Diaspora relations long precedes the creation of the Jewish state. Says the Talmud, in Tractate Ketubot (110b): “Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the Land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God.” Translate that into modern Zionist ideology, and you get shelilat hagolah, the “negation of the Diaspora,” or more literally, of the Exile.
This invidious distinction between Jews who dwell in Eretz Israel and those who don’t is also implied in the everyday word “aliyah,” which suggests that one “ascends” to a higher plateau of Jewish existence when one moves to Israel. North American Jews, by and large, don’t buy it. They enjoy fine lives on many levels: spiritual, moral, material, and also political. From the days of the New England Puritans, non-Jewish Americans have regarded their land and society as a New Israel, in both a religious and metaphorical sense. And many American Jews have felt that way too. As the Reform rabbi Gustavus Poznanski stated in 1841, at the dedication of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple."
Since the creation of the State of Israel, the topic has become increasingly complex. Redemption, as Donniel Hartman writes in our keynote article, is not to be found in today’s Israel, nor is North America a place of exile. A new reality, in which many Jews have grown disenchanted with Israel, calls for a paradigm shift, a new story. But “changing an ancient paradigm,” he writes, “is not a simple endeavor, and requires a concentrated educational, cultural and institutional effort.” His essay is one of five written by members of SHI’s Engaging Israel project , which is designed to create a new narrative that will enrich the significance of Israel in Jewish life. The EI team, consisting of experts and researchers in Israel and North America, works as a group to develop ideas that can transcend partisan politics and a crisis mentality, and form a basis for a 21 st century conversation that is based on Jewish values.
Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi asks why so many liberal Jews have a problem embracing Israel, and what might be done to improve the situation. Gil Troy explores the inevitable clash between what Israel is and what it ought to be, and suggests a healthy way of balancing expectation and reality. Yossi Klein Halevi , analyzing an historic encounter between David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish leadership, contends that Israelis and Diaspora Jews should show more respect for each other. And Tal Becker elaborates on a central problem, arguing that the conversation about Israel has been so focused on security and survival that Jews have often neglected difficult ethical questions confronting Israeli society.
The themes of Engaging Israel are also addressed in our Symposium, which is made up of leaders and scholars from Israel and world Jewry. Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party and former Foreign Minister of Israel, insists that the notion of shelilat hagolah is obsolete and also rejects “the mistaken idea that Israel is no longer central to Jewish life.” Lord Stanley Kalms, a leader of the Jewish community in the UK, argues that supporters of Israel must be armed with knowledge in order to refute propaganda, and should be fully informed about Israel’s many achievements in business, technology, and law. David Hartman , President Emeritus of SHI, says that Jewish critics of Israel should be motivated by love and empathy, “more like a mother than a mother-in-law.” Naomi Chazan, President of the New Israel Fund and a former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, discusses the condition of Israel’s "inclusive, though flawed, democracy." Our other contributors, who include North American members of the EI team, ponder such subjects as the alienation of young Jews, the intersection of politics and morality, and the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
Speaking of poetry, our Afikoman section features translations of two speeches delivered by Haim Nahman Bialik, the greatest modern Hebrew poet, during his Zionist fund-raising tour of America in 1926. Bialik hated big cities, knew no English, and schlepped, sleep-deprived, from gig to gig, but felt in the end that his trip was worth the effort. “Work and build the life of our people, motivated by joy, not sorrow,” he told an audience in New York, on the last night of his tour. One couldn’t ask for a better summary of our own hopes for the future.

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