Arnold Eisen is calling for a revisioning of Zionism. Why? The Conservative movement leader views the relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews as “fraying to the point of dissolution.”
“By and large, the American-Jewish public and the Israeli-Jewish public do not much care about the Jewish community on the other side of that divide,” said Eisen. “I think this calls for a reevaluation of Zionism.”
The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary spoke before a crowd at Congregation Beth El in South Orange on April 19, Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“The realities that face us in 2010 are different from the realities we faced in 1967 and 1973 and certainly different from the reality in 1948, and so one of things we have to do is think together again about what Zionism means because none of the existing models are satisfactory,” he said.
That’s no small order for an administrator who, appointed to helm JTS three years ago, is dealing with budgetary constraints that are limiting the speed of the implementation of his vision.
Calling himself a religious Zionist, he offered up a model of Zionism that not only fuses those two facets of his own identity, but also marries them to the philosophy of Conservative Judaism.
Eisen said he views the State of Israel as an opportunity not only to ensure the survival of the Jews, so there can be a Judaism, but also test the promise of Torah as a way of life. He wasn’t referring to dissolving the borders between religion and state, or making Halacha, Jewish law, the law of the land. Instead, he spoke of looking into sacred texts to find teachings that can be adapted to the modern world.
“We Jews in the world have the task of making Israel an instrument for new kinds of Jewish communities and new kinds of Torah,” he said. “What does Torah, in the broad sense, have to say about health care? What does Torah have to say about foreign policy? And what does Torah have to say about being responsible for a minority of people who are citizens of your state but are not Jewish?
“That is, to me, a tremendous opportunity to expand the notion of mitzva.”
Conservative Jews, with a commitment to both tradition and change, have “particular purchase” on this issue.
“We have particular wisdom, insight to bring to bear, particular experience at bringing Judaism up to date and having it respond to new challenges,” he said.
Israel also serves as the one place where public time and space have a distinctly Jewish flavor. “Although we try to create Jewish time and space in synagogues, camps, and schools, the absence of a Jewish time and space bedevils us; Israel gives it to us,” said Eisen.
Eisen would like to see Diaspora Jews better educated about real-life experience in Israel — and “not just the larger-than-life story of Israel.”
“Most Jewish education has a little about Yom Ha’atzmaut, but there is no serious Israel education. That’s sad…,” he said.
He urged ways of identifying with Israel beyond philanthropy and advocacy.
“The answer has to lie in fostering experiences of American Jews involving Israel and fostering experience of Israeli Jews of us. Birthright is the beginning of this,” he said, referring to the free trips to Israel for young people, “but only the beginning, and there’s a lot more that’s needed.”
Finally, in order to remedy the lack of relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, he suggested the creation of conversations, or “shared partnerships,” among Jews on both sides of the divide.
“The most important thing is Jew-to-Jew relationships, doctors talking to doctors, because they have something to converse about, lawyers talking to lawyers, I-T people talking to I-T people.”
Failure to “revision” and “revitalize” Zionism will come at a steep price, said Eisen.
“God forbid we get to a point where the American president and the American Congress know that most Jews don’t care very much about Israel and are free to make terrible decisions,” he said.