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‘Let’s Join Hands with Israel and Improve World Together’

Jeff Saperstein: Donniel Hartman’s challenge about Israel becomes more profound if we are honest about where Diaspora Jews are going

For several years, our Israel focus in this country seems to have been dominated by the Palestinian conflict and Israel’s security. But perhaps the time has come to stop thinking “small” in regard to Israel, and to start thinking “big” – i.e., a new engagement and dialogue between Israeli and American Jews.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research and education institute based in Jerusalem, suggested such an approach during recent Bay Area appearances.
He presented a paradigm: Those Jews who are still thinking “in exile” by viewing Israel through the lens of Jewish vulnerability, and those Jews who think “in redemption” by viewing Israel through the lens of Israel can now do no wrong.
Hartman suggests that Israel is a strong country and Israelis now have the power to take risks for their own vision of what the Jewish state will become. Israel must be held to “Jewish standards,” he said, and we should be part of the discussion, but Israel should not be totally defined by the conflict. American Jews are home here and Israelis are home there; together we have the power to enable the Jewish future, more secure than ever before, to emerge.
His challenge to our thinking about Israel becomes all the more profound if we are honest about where we – the other half of the Jewish people – are going, particularly as it relates to our engagement with Israel, to forge a Jewish global agenda for the 21st century.
For far too long, our community preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – in which we are not protagonists – has precluded us from thinking big about what our own mission can be in partnership with Israel.
For those of us (and there are many in our community) who participated in Operation Exodus, which brought 1 million Jews out of the former Soviet Union, and Operations Solomon and Moses, which brought close to 80,000 Jews out of Ethiopia for rescue, resettlement and renewal in Israel, we know what it feels like to be in Jewish partnership for a truly big, worthy task: We raised the money, the Israelis brought those who wished to resettle to Israel there. American Jews, in partnership with the U.S. government, brought those who wished to come to the United States here, and successfully resettled them in our communities.
Today, Israel has become a lightning rod for many in our community. Civil discourse on Israel had become a challenge, usually more dividing than uniting for many of our institutions.
Some pulpit rabbis even choose not to speak about our connection to Israel nor offer the prayer for the State of Israel in the Shabbat service so as not to antagonize those congregants for whom Israel has become a symbol of shame in their own Jewish identity.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not end soon. We must ask ourselves if we want this to be our focus for the next decade.
Are the biases of film festivals and museum exhibits, the settlements, the flotillas, the U.N. unilateral declarations of independence resolutions – and on and on – going to be our agenda for the foreseeable future as we lurch from one crisis to the next? I hope not.
So what could our next great step be to engage with Israelis for a common future, and to bring our own energetic, idealistic young Jews to “shoulder the wheel” with them?
There is a global movement to create a smarter planet through the multiple applications of technology, such as renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, electric cars), leading to energy independence from those who are antagonistic to our shared Western values.
Israel is at the forefront of this effort; it has a national vision to lead the way in energy independence and to share both the development and application of these breakthroughs with the world as it has with agricultural and medical advancements. There is also a movement toward social entrepreneurship to improve the quality of life for all who live on this planet.
Could we not join Israelis in these efforts as a Jewish agenda? Would this not be a preferable focus for our collective energies with Israel than preoccupation with “The Conflict”? Would we not be better off playing forward rather than replaying backward?
The old joke about Jewish holidays has always been, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat.” Would it not be better to retell the joke this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s transform the world to be a better place.”
Published originally in JWeekly, San Francisco, Cal., Nov. 23, 2011

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