“Imagine a married couple who have cycled in and out of intimacy ask themselves every day if they should stay married. Without answering the question, the very asking of it assumes that there is a question to be asked. There is a problem. The question itself begins to undermine the relationship.”
This dynamic, writes Dr. Erica Brown, director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the George Washington University, is similar to one we see in the way Diaspora Jews think about Israel. In a recent essay for the publication “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective,” Brown suggests that by constantly assessing our connection to Israel and our identity in relation to it, we’re actually compromising our relationship.
“We may be suffering from identity fatigue,” Brown writes, “the dulling sense of despair when we continue to talk about who we are instead of simply existing.”
The remedy? Brown suggests a less intense approach, saying that maybe “it is time to let go of asking so many questions about Jewish living so that we may live. … [And] limit the constant identity questions.”
While constant interrogation can be off-putting to some, the prescription to live and let live in this context is not necessarily the best solution, particularly as we are seeing diminishing Diaspora support for Israel. Rather, it seems to us that more dialogue is needed, with more questioning, rather than less.
But, while we are heartened by the theme of this year’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly: “Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk,” we urge those doing the talking to also do some serious listening.
We need to talk, JFNA asserts, because Israel and Jewish America are actually quite different. In the United States, 50 percent of American Jews identify as liberals. In Israel, that number is 8 percent. Here, 80 percent of American Jews think non-Orthodox rabbis should be able to officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel. Over there, that number drops to 49 percent. We share so much — 95 percent in both countries are proud to be Jewish — but there’s much we don’t, and the only way we can see each other clearly is by talking, with an emphasis on understanding.
This year’s GA, from Oct. 22 to 24, will be in Tel Aviv, and sessions include “Can We Talk? Peace-Process Realities in Israel,” “Bridging the Divide: A Cross-Cultural Conversation” and “Hugging and Wrestling: A New Language for Our Israel Relationship.” It is a schedule invested in identity, focused on frank discussions relating to what that means.
Although we applaud this approach, we also think it is not necessary that Jews in Israel and those in North America come to an agreement on every issue. Not unlike a couple in a marital relationship, it is perfectly healthy for the partners to view things differently. The key is working together, despite political or ideological differences. By the way, this is how Federations typically work within their own communities, representing the interests of the Orthodox, non-Orthodox and unaffiliated, and those with a range of political of views.
While it might be easier to indulge Brown’s point of view and take each other for granted in the comfortable way that family members do, now is not the time for such complacency. And just as we in the Diaspora yearn for Israeli Jews to understand us, we need to commit to understanding them as well. Conversation and dialogue, even when tiring or threatening, is essential.
Instead of withdrawing to our separate corners, we hope the GA will provide an opportunity to bring Diaspora and Israeli Jews closer together. We really do need to talk. PJC