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In An Era With Two Jewish Centers, We Need A New Zionism

It’s no secret that we Jews are living in divided times. In recent years, more and more American Jews have become frustrated with specific Israeli policies and are defining their entire relationship with Israel by the areas of their disagreement. That has led to more American Jews publicly criticizing Israel, which has led to more division within the American Jewish community itself.

Meanwhile, as many American Jews are wagging our fingers at Israel, Jews in Israel are shrugging their shoulders at us, saying Diaspora Jewry won’t exist in a generation due to assimilation and anti-Semitism. Many Israelis don’t understand what American Jewry has to offer to the future of Jewish life.

This divide causes many Jews consternation, even pain. And yet, it actually comes from a very positive source: This is the first time in Jewish history when there is both a strong Jewish homeland and a strong Jewish Diaspora. With around six million Jews in each community, never before have we been so secure both in our homeland — and in a country we have chosen to make our own, the United States of America, where we have been welcomed as equals.

This new situation requires a new paradigm for thinking about the Jewish community. Indeed, it requires nothing short of a new Zionism.

We need a Zionism which recognizes that the US is not a way station to Israel, which recognizes the importance of the American Jewish community in its Americanness. And we need a Zionism which encapsulates our connection to Zion which is not quite a yearning to be there.

This new Zionism would not weaken the connection between American and Israeli Jews but strengthen it. We have shared obligation, collective sympathy and mutual responsibility for each other. These are concepts that have come to us from Mount Sinai. It is a covenant given to Moses and passed down to us today. It is halakhah – Jewish law – that dictates Kol Yisrael Arevim Z’la Zo — “all Jews are responsible for each other.”

One of the great rabbis of the 20th century, Joseph Soloveitchik, told the following Talmudic story on the eighth anniversary of the State of Israel: a father came to his rabbi to ask for two blessings for his eldest son. The rabbi asked why two blessings if there was only one son. The father replied that his son had been born with two heads.

So the rabbi pondered for a moment. Was this one person or two? Did he deserve one blessing or two? And after considering for a while, he decided to offer a Solomonic solution to the quandary. He suggested they pour hot water over one of the heads, and if the other cried out in pain then it was indeed one person. But if the other didn’t cry out in pain, then they were two separate entities.

This is a Talmudic story written over 1,000 years before the founding of the modern state of Israel. And yet it is still relevant for today. When bombs fall in Israel, we suffer here in the Diaspora. And when Jews are shot in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Israeli Jews suffer with us.

We feel each other’s pain. We are still one people. We need unity, not uniformity.

This new Zionism must honor our differences but transcend them to embrace the oneness of the Jewish People. It must insist that Israel and the Diaspora engage as equal partners. And it must prioritize a diversity of voices.

If you are wondering if Israelis really care what American Jews think, let me tell you that they do. One week ago today, I was in Israel because I was invited to speak at a conference on the issue of Israel-Diaspora relations. This was the first conference of its kind put on in Israel, by Israelis, for Israelis.

If you believe the critics out there, then you might assume that no one would come to a conference on this topic. But over 2,000 people came to this conference. The Jerusalem Convention Center was packed. Israelis of all stripes came. I met one person after another who thanked me for my message and told me that they cared.

I share this with you so you understand that this issue matters to Americans and Israelis. We are not just talking to ourselves! And that’s how I know we will succeed.

It will take some time, but we will succeed in creating a new paradigm in relations between Israel and world Jewry. We will succeed in evolving Zionism to its third iteration.

There is this character in the Talmud named Elisha Ben Abuyah. He is called “Acher” in the Talmud, which means “The Other.” He’s called this because he experienced a tragedy in his life that was so severe, so transformative, that it caused him to walk away from Judaism.

What the actual event was, has been debated, but what isn’t debated is that this devout, respected, first-century rabbi who walked alongside the greats like Rabbi Akiva, turned away from Jewish life and became a heretic, which was the worst possible thing a Jew could do at that time.

And yet, he is quoted in the Talmud. He is remembered. And his student, Rabbi Meir, never stopped following his teachings. So even though Elisha pulled himself out of the Jewish community with his actions, the community did not fully abandon him.

There is a deep lesson in there for all of us. You may think the actions of a member of our family are so reprehensible, but remember: they are still family. They are still a part of our community.

I encourage you to remember that the next time you read something written by someone you totally disagree with, or hear something from someone whose politics are 180 degrees different from yours, or meet someone whose religious observance is anathema to you. Remember Elisha ben Abuyah.

We can and we must create an old-new ideology to bind us. This is the way into the future, and another 2,000 years of Jewish history in the making.

Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. He writes for publications throughout the U.S. and Israel, including a regular Blog for The Times of Israel.

This oped was adapted from remarks delivered at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto.

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