Supporters of Naftali Bennett celebrate in Tel Aviv in 2013. / Getty Images
When I heard that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency were spearheading a three-day “Online Brainstorming Marathon to Plan the Future of the Jewish People,” the international crowdsourcing initiative instantly grabbed my attention.
Partly, it was because I’d heard that Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett has been working with the Jewish Agency to launch a global dialogue that will, I believe, promote a healthy shift: from viewing Diaspora Jews simply as bankrollers of Israel, to seeing how Israel and the Diaspora can help each other in securing their respective and mutual identities. The “Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative,” which kicked off last November, will see the Israeli government earmark 1.4 billion towards this goal. More recently, Bennett even went so far as to float the idea of granting Diaspora Jews “semi-citizenship.”
The other reason I wanted to join the Jews around the world who have been participating in this online forum for the past three days had to do with something I’d written years ago. In a column about attending a Tel Aviv peace rally, I had puzzled over the question of whether or not participating in such protest marches was my right as a non-citizen. I suggested that perhaps we Diaspora Jews can consider ourselves quasi-citizens of Israel as we engage and wrestle with the Jewish state and its policies.
So I went sleuthing online, where I eventually found the Securing the Jewish Future discussion board. After signing in with my name and photo, I was invited to watch several minute-long, upbeat videos on topics including Israel and peoplehood, Israel on campus, Jewish engagement, experiencing life in Israel, immersive experience, and serving the global good.
Given that the initiative is partly about Diaspora-Israel connections, I was eager to jump into a discussion on Israel. But it wasn’t so easy. By Day 3, the Israel and campus life topic had closed. I read through the previous days’ discussions. There were the usual debates — all exceedingly courteous — over the role of Hillel and its competitor Chabad, how to promote Jewish particularism in the universalist atmosphere of liberal university education, how to promote Jewish unity, whether Jewish students are ashamed of their heritage, how to encourage Jewish studies that enables an appreciation for Jewish texts rather than the more arms-length “Biblical criticism” strand, and whether programs like Birthright really help in sustaining Jewish identity. There was some brief discussion on whether Israel affords a better forum to air policy critiques, and whether Israel should be criticized at all.
Then I clicked on one of the remaining open topics. I figured that the topic asking how Jewish communities can best facilitate “Jewish journeys” might lend itself to looking at how we think and talk about Israel. I jumped in with a brief comment: “Fostering a more pluralistic and analytical discourse around Israel and its policies.”
There followed much discussion about how to better educate and engage Jews through existing community channels, and whether Jewish journeys can even be mapped out by communities in the first place. But no one took up the thread I had offered.
All the while, I reflected back on the website’s description of the “Israel and Jewish life on campus” topic:
One of the most vital challenges for the flourishing of Jewish life is for Jewish ideas and ideals to be absorbed in the open environment of university campus, particularly amid a worrying perception on some campuses of Israel as an obstacle to world progress. It is important to create a pro-Jewish, pro-Israel environment so that future leaders in politics, the media, society and business see Israel as a vital ally in pursuit of shared values and mutual interests.
By weighing in with my fairly anodyne comment about fostering a more pluralistic and analytical discourse around Israel, what I was really trying to do was rouse the elephant in the room. If the government of Israel truly wants Diaspora Jews to feel more “pro-Israel,” why not consider looking at how its policies might be leading some Jews to quietly turn away?
The description also oddly mentions the “worrying perception” about Israel being an “obstacle to world progress.” Using the grandiose phrase “world progress” allows readers to shrug off criticism of Israel as rejectionism, ignorance or even anti-Semitism. But for my part, I can think of some very concrete ways in which the government of Israel has been placing obstacles on the path, perhaps not to “world progress” (whatever that means), but at least to reconciliation with one small corner of the world: the Palestinians.
I look forward to taking up Bennett’s offer of quasi-citizenship, and to thinking about our Diaspora Jewish role as genuine (if junior) partners in discussing Israel’s fate. But I hope that means that all questions are actually on the table.