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This year, let’s debate everything — except Israel

In 2020, Jews need to argue. We need to argue more than we have, but also differently. Here’s the formula: There should be fewer fights about Israel. There should be more fights about everything else.

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

This might be difficult. Far too many American Jews have nothing to say that is not related to the Jewish State.

On the one hand, you have those on the right who have swapped out the wild rainforest of Jewish faith and doubt for the sturdy but narrow stump of pro-Israel advocacy. On the other hand, you have those on the left who incessantly attempt to detach Zionism from Judaism and anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. Like their ideological opposites, members of these groups all too frequently have nothing to say about the guts of Judaism, the intricacy of halakha, or the endless fecundity of the Jewish religious imagination.

If “the occupation” is your theory of everything, and criticism of Israel your “way of being Jewish,” then there is not a ton left besides, just like if your sense of the Jewish future turns only on what happens at the U.N. and what doesn’t happen past the Green Line.

This is not to say that debates about Israel are not important; there is much to sort out. But there isn’t that much to sort out – not these days, anyway. There is unlikely to be any major change in Israel, besides a business as usual in the form of yet another election which excludes us non-citizens. And even if Prime Minister Netanyahu is finally booted from power, the simple truth is that a working majority of Israelis believe that there is no practical way to make peace with the Palestinians that does not include mass violence against Israeli citizens.

There will be no immediate withdrawal from the West Bank, and a Gantz premiership is likely to look very similar to the Netanyahu one, hopefully minus much of the gratuitous racism.

Contra left, Israel is not in crisis. And contra the right, Israel is not in crisis.

American Jewry, however, is in a crisis — of anemia. It’s shedding dimensions at an alarming rate. In recent years, these arguments about Israel have superseded everything else, thinning out the rich brew of Jewish life with a watered-down discourse about Israel, hoping to make it stretch further but leaving everyone hungry.

Our Israel conversation is too hot and everything else is too tepid, a tragic state of affairs when you consider that the Jewish reputation for argument was earned far, far before the advent of Zionism. It was built on passionate disagreements about minutiae that mattered more than anything else in the world.

And yet, today, we argue about things far away from us and have nothing to say about things closer to home. We indulge polemics when it comes to Israel or Trump or tax policy but fall back into platitudes when it comes to the things that make Judaism, well, Judaism.

In our rush to make Judaism welcoming and to erase denominations, we’ve forgotten the stakes that Jews attached to ritual and belief, detail and devotion. Indeed, it’s this amnesia which helps explain the gulf between haredi Jews and much of the mainstream American Jewish community that persist despite the supposedly centripetal effects of anti-Semitism.

Let’s recover those stakes, and bind together by caring enough to disagree. In 2020, every Jew should have a stance towards the major tentpole issues of Judaism: Shabbat, Kashrut, the holidays, our memory and history. Punting on three thousand years of history for your hot take on annexation is just a bad tradeoff. Twitter, so awash in flame wars between the pro and anti Israel camps, should be aflame with pitched debate over kashrut and shabbat and if it makes sense to do two seders and what it means to wear a kippah.

Israel is the most important project the Jewish people have undertaken in two millennia, and every Jew is invested in its success. But it is not the whole of Judaism, just as Everest’s scale is not confined to its summit. This year, vow to broaden your Jewish horizons, and then sally forth to defend what shape those horizons should take.

How to do that? First, learn Hebrew; There can be no truly global Jewish culture without a shared language. English is a good candidate, but it isn’t ours; it belongs to everyone. It must be Hebrew. In fact, the revival of Hebrew might be a greater achievement than the establishment of a state. Far fewer languages have been brought back from the dead than new states have come to life. It is the path back towards the riches of Jewish tradition and the drama of the Jewish present. Argue in Hebrew, about whatever you want.

Second, don’t be afraid to get Jewishly weird. Jewish life is too often milquetoast, too rational and reasonable. This year, explore Jewish song and dance, poetry and art. Let it surprise you, and surprise yourself. Use Jewishness to challenge your pieties rather than reinforce them. Grow your investment in the ancient debates that bloom from Jewish texts like so many captivating flowers.

Third, don’t be afraid to be a little conventional. The richest debates and most radical revolutions are tangent to the mainstream, not asymptotic to it. Get over your awkwardness in Jewish spaces, or you won’t be able to change them. Find a vaccine for your allergy to Jewish prayer and observance, or you will deprive yourself of the ability to renovate and reinvent.

The expanding scope of the challenges Jews face at the dawn of a new decade — metastasizing anti-Semitism, a faltering American political system, a broken Israeli one — call for the biggest Judaism we can build. And that requires broadness and boldness from each one of us. With hearts firmly planted in the East, let our minds wander to the four corners of the Jewish world.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward.

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