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The New Rules of Engagement

We must get down to core arguments as to why Jewish peoplehood, sovereignty, power and a Jewish democratic state, as expressed or potentially expressed in the new reality which is Israel, are legally sound and morally upstanding

In the classic Jewish narrative, and in fact, in contemporary Israeli discourse, the world is divided into two places – Israel and everywhere else, with every Jew who lives outside of Israel classified as living in "chutz la’aretz" (outside the land) and in exile. In the 20th century, this Israel-centric consciousness took root in a time when "chutz la’aretz" was inherently unsafe for Jews, with Israel providing the only hope for refuge.
At the root of the growing rift between Israel and world Jewry as discussed in my previous article on this subject, Engaging Israel: Beyond Advocacy, is the dramatically successful integration and transformation in the reality of Jewish life outside of Israel, especially in North America. This was coupled with the failure of the global Jewish community to develop a new non-survival based narrative for the significance of the State of Israel for Jews around the world.
In a new project now under way at the Shalom Hartman Institute designed to craft such a narrative, which we have entitled "Israel Engagement," we are developing a new vocabulary and direction that will avoid certain fundamental pitfalls that have served to further distance Israel from world Jewry. Without yet getting into the substance of this narrative, which is still in formulation, we have preliminarily identified six fundamental rules which we believe must govern contemporary Israel engagement projects.
1. The new Israel engagement narrative must be based primarily on Jewish values as distinct from a factual, historical conversation. Unless Israel and Zionism are integrated into a larger Jewish conversation and given a critical place in the meaning of Jewish life in the 21st century for Jews around the world, no contemporary or historical facts will be able to overcome the fundamental gap in interest and concern. In general, it is worthwhile to remember that people do not make commitments on the basis of facts, but rather choose the facts which support their prior commitments. The purpose of the Jewish values discourse around Israel is to create this initial commitment.
2. The case for Israel, while based on Israel’s accomplishments, must define Israel primarily in terms of being a project in formation – a work in progress. The case for Israel must be based on what Israel can be and not necessarily always on what it is. One of the great difficulties embedded in contemporary attempts to make the case for Israel is that they often over-glorify and oversimplify the complex reality which is Israel, and in doing so, further alienate those who do not always experience this reality in positive terms. As a 62-year-old country we have a record on which to run, but we and world Jewry also must recognize that as a young state we are still a project in formation. As such the question is not merely what Israel has accomplished, but what can it accomplish and what it can mean for Jewish life. It is precisely in that context that we can invite Jews around the world to connect, support and contribute to the shaping of this evolving project.
3. Israel must be presented as a project of the Jewish people worldwide and not just of the Israelis. Only an Israel which is willing to share ownership in the enterprise with Jews around the world, which is open to constructive criticism and advice, and is not merely seeking handouts is an Israel that can lay claim to being a place of significance in Jews’ lives around the world. This requires not only a change in the consciousness of world Jewry but of Israelis as well. At issue is not whether world Jewry gets to vote in Israeli elections, but whether we see the forming of the state as a partnership in which Jews around the world have a stake.
4. The same standards of pluralism and tolerance so widely accepted by Jews around the world when it comes to Jewish life must apply as well to the discourse around Israel. When it comes to Judaism we have learned that multiple voices must be equally valued or tolerated if different Jews are to be able to build a religious and spiritual life within Judaism. The same awareness is required when it comes to Israel. Only an Israel in which different visions and ideas with regard to both its foreign and internal policies are allowed as part of the conversation is an Israel which can be significant in the lives of diverse Jews. When certain ideas and opinions are stifled or branded as non-loyal and treacherous, the result is not an increase in support and love for Israel but rather departures from the camp of supporters of Israel. A monopoly on what constitutes a loyal supporter of Israel does not generate greater loyalty but rather indifference and alienation.
5. This new narrative, while grounded on Jewish values, must be firmly embedded as well in contemporary legal, political, and moral theory. Much of the alienation toward Israel has not grown from Israel’s policies nor its public relations, but from contemporary discourse, which claims the intellectual, legal, and moral high ground for positions that fundamentally delegitmize the Jewish state. The Jewish community must be educated not merely as to the Jewish values enhanced by the decision of the Jewish people to embrace sovereignty with all its complexities, but it must equally be educated in the general intellectual foundations which support the legitimacy of a homeland for the Jewish people and our right to defend it within obvious moral constraints.
6. More is less and less is more. We are living in a time in which a connection to the Jewish people and support for Israel are no longer self evident. Members of our community are tired of having to defend Israel and to respond over and again to the seemingly never-ending crises to which Israel is subjected. We are facing a generation in which the default position is one which doesn’t need a reason for not supporting Israel. In this context, our arguments for engaging Israel and for building a new narrative must be careful not to overextend and to present too many arguments in support.
An argument, like any chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. Supporters of Israel must recognize that the strength of the narrative cannot be assessed by its significance to them but rather on its ability to inspire those who are not similarly committed. We must get down to core arguments as to why Jewish peoplehood, sovereignty, power and a Jewish democratic state, as expressed or potentially expressed in the new reality which is Israel, are legally sound and morally upstanding.
Building this new narrative and following the outline above is not simple and constitutes one of the great moral, spiritual and intellectual tasks facing Jewish life in the 21st century. If we follow these rules, however, we will give ourselves a chance to turn today’s challenge into an opportunity for a more deeply connected, united and vibrant Jewish people.
NOTE: In coming weeks we will take each one of these core positions and expand on them and as our research team continues in this work. I and other members of this team will be sharing with you some of the thoughts and struggles and specific content that we believe must be a part of this new narrative. If you want to participate in this process and receive periodic updates, please click here now .

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