Birthright’s Move To Exclude Arab-Israelis From Its Narrative Is A Crisis — And Here’s How We Fix It.

This first appeared in The Forward November 8th 2017

Birthright Israel’s education department recently announced that all providers of its signature 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews must stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs in their programming.

The move has hit a nerve. It has brought out the raw feelings surrounding the funders of the program, those who safeguard the educational content and those who lead the largest segments of the US Jewish community.

Birthright continues to be a crown jewel in the crown of US Diaspora relations. Given Birthright’s prominence, both in terms of costs, impact and cultural significance, it should not come as a surprise that people care deeply about what trip participants are exposed to.

Gil Troy, the chair of Birthright’s educational committee, in his passionate response to Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ press release on the decision which called Birthright “out of touch,” couches the adjustment of the program as a result of evaluative feedback rather than a rejection of the values of shared society:

“We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback… When our Beit Midrash (religious study hall) tanked, we didn’t oppose Jewish learning. When our entrepreneur track sputtered, we didn’t stop celebrating Israel as “start up nation.”

While I’m sure that it was internal evaluations that lead to the adjustment, Israel’s relationship with its minorities is more than a little different from the virtues of the “start-up nation” or the values of Jewish textual learning. While the aim of Birthright is to connect unconnected Jews to themselves, there is an ethical question of whether or not one can ignore the impact the Jewish nation state has on its non-Jewish citizens. To what extent does the efficacy of the Birthright experience trump the ethics of editing Israeli Arabs out of Israeli society?

There are 1.8 million Arab citizens of Israel, a full 21.6% of the population of Israel, according to the latest census data. They are an essential part of the story.

I don’t envy the curriculum authors or the educators on the ground. Birthright participants are not blank slates who soak up whatever they are told. Participants come with their own array of ideas, political assumptions, experiences and backgrounds. Trying to get anything to stick on a 10-day emotional and hormonal visit is extremely hard. Arab citizens of Israel, however, are an essential part of the story of Israel — and how the Jewish majority relates to them is a test of our values on a national level.

Rather than assume that Birthright will forever ignore the complex relationship between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, I do think that they will continue to attempt to find a way to address this issue. The organized Jewish community in the US and UK provide a workable model worth considering.

The Interagency Task Force on Arab Israeli Issues (and its UK equivalent) have for years been bringing together the major forces in the diaspora Jewish community, from federations, to advocacy organizations and funders, to have a deep understanding of the realities of the situation of Israel’s Arab minority. Together, a subgroup created the Social Venture Fund, now run by the Jewish Funders Network, which finds the best and brightest organizations working on these issues and collectively gives to them.

An educational module crafted by these organizations, and adapted for the different types of Birthright trips could provide credible, and at times challenging, programing that the heart of the organizational Jewish community supports. It could provide the follow up bridge for the Birthright alumni to get involved, if they so chose, to access these issues with expert information and giving circle opportunities.

Another option is to connect Birthright groups to programs that are supported by the US government. A little known fact is that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the largest funders of shared society programing in Israel through the office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. Here groups can visit organizations vetted and supported by Uncle Sam, who are working on a range of issues spanning education, employment, sports, technology and environment.

Again the experience would not have to stop when the trip was over, with Birthright alumni being able to convey their experience to their Congressional representatives, having seen first hand what the US is doing in the Israel.

The more taut the relationship between the US Jewish community and the Government of Israel becomes, the greater the friction on the signature program between the two communities. In today’s Israel, coexistence is not an apolitical concept and we would be foolhardy to assume that programs that create a shared society would be entirely uncontroversial.

Yet rather than abandon the hard educational challenge, this crisis can be converted into a showcase of how the U.S., both as a country and a Jewish community, are tackling this complexity in a ways that can both educate and connect the most unconnected among us.

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Establishing a Culture of Peace

This appeared on Times of Israel and Matav Blog

As with any insider view, Michael Herzog’s eye opening account of what happened during the last round of Israeli Palestinian negotiations contains fascinating details.

There is a confirmed backchannel of Dennis Ross, Isaac Molho and Hussein Agha. We learn of what turned out to be a confusing shuttle diplomacy strategy by the Americans. The timeline of the collapse is clarified and the internal discussions of the Israeli side are revealed in greater depth.

As commentators and analysts go through the details, deducing lessons for future efforts, much attention will be paid to the mistakes in process and the reality of the gaps in the positions.

In the zone of possible agreement section, Herzog gives the readers a glimpse of where the parties were on key issues. Much was already suspected. He goes through the question of Jewish State, something that Kerry would later publicly pick up in his last speech on the issue, telling the world that there had been progress made on a regional level on this issue. He details the security work that General Allen’s team undertook, something that the Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security later spelled out in greater detail. The refugee question got updated to include the plight of Jews from Arab lands (though the conversations were never concluded) and Jerusalem was punted.

All of this was pretty much suspected if not known by the end of the Obama administration. Yet Herzog finishes his account of the possible agreement with a surprising final line.

“Finally, a new section initiated by Tzipi Livni on the “Culture of Peace” was introduced.”

Herzog offers no analysis or explanation but a footnote to an interview that Livni held with David Horowitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, in September 2014.

Towards the end of the interview Livni revealed that there was agreed text of what a culture of peace should look like. Below is the full part of the interview.

That’s not my point. What I’m asking is why you haven’t focused on the centrality of the need to put an end to the incitement against Israel, and to create a more honest narrative?

You’re wrong. I suggested at the start of the negotiations (in 2013) that we finalize the clause relating to the so-called “Culture of Peace” in the future agreement. First of all, implementing that clause need not wait for a full agreement. Let me see if I can find you the text. (Livni searches in her i-Pad.) It has been a while. I’m not talking here about the bilateral committees on incitement, where each side ran to complain about the other. This is something (we worked on) with Abu Mazen, which did not get implemented but which I really think has to be done.

We also need to look at ourselves. I’m Israeli. I want to protect Israel. That’s my chief interest. But to say that our texts…

… and our maps that don’t show the West Bank. No, we’re not perfect.

Or describing the Palestinians as “shrapnel in the butt” (a reference to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s likening of the Palestinian conflict last year to shrapnel in the rear end — DH).

So, I’m very much in favor of the Palestinians being okay, but we should be too. And one doesn’t contradict the other. Both sides have to be okay. (Livni finds a document and shows it to me on her i-Pad.) This was a text on civil society and the culture of peace. It was meant to be part of any agreement. Here we set out…

Can I have a copy of this?

 No, there’s a limit. (She laughs.) But you can look. You can see there are clauses against “supporting incitement.” A whole section… (The section of the document Livni shows me deals with preventing racism and discrimination, and features language highlighting the imperative to “promote mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.”)

If you implement steps like these, it might be gradually possible to help create a different atmosphere.

I wanted to do it simultaneously. Not to halt everything. I thought it could be implemented. That didn’t happen. 

Again, surely he should have an interest in implementing this.

Who do you mean by “he”? 

The leader you’re not representing in this interview.

(Livni laughs.) And you’re assuming that he’s the one who refused? Look, it didn’t happen. You know what, it didn’t happen. We immediately also got into the core issues. I suggested it to the Americans.

This “Culture of Peace” proposal also included clauses relating to incitement by religious leaders, media…?

Everything. Everything. Actually, I think we had an agreed text. I’ll check again. Had we extended the talks (last spring), I think we were going to implement it during the extended negotiations. But we didn’t reach an agreement to extend the negotiations.

I think it’s something that should be implemented anyway. I’m telling you, I suggested it at the very beginning.”

One of the challenges of the negotiations between Israel and the PLO has always been that ‘nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon’. The linkage means that incremental process is invalidated unless a final deal is achieved. This keeps key concessions locked away until every part of the deal is worked out so it can be sold to both populations as a package deal.

Yet the problems that a deal will solve metastasize in its absence, making compromises harder and harder to reach. The most obvious and well known is that of settlements. The longer there is no agreement on borders the more that settlements grow, making it harder to generate the political will to pull back by creating new facts on the ground.

While the settlements are a physical manifestation of a barrier to progress, no less significant is the fear, mistrust and hate that the conflict has generated between the populations. While the power balance between Israelis and Palestinians is asymmetric, the mistrust and fear is equal. If political will is needed to open the space to get to an agreement between the parties, then the agreement of creating a culture of peace cannot wait until a full agreement is signed. It is needed as a necessary precondition.

Livni in her interview recognizes this, stating that this clause should be implemented anyway.

With the collapse of the negotiations, the Quartet report of July 2016 became the next key document to lay out a way forward. The final recommendation of the report requested that,

“Both parties should foster a climate of tolerance, including through increasing interaction and cooperation in a variety of fields – economic, professional, educational, cultural – that strengthen the foundations for peace and countering extremism.”

Since then legislators in the US and UK have advanced a concept of an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace, whose aim would be to actualize a strategic, scalable attempt to create a culture of peace through dedicated funding. It is based off the successful International Fund for Ireland. Later this month the United States Institute of Peace is holding a half-day conference on the lessons that can be learnt between the two funds. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who oversaw the Good Friday agreement and was the Quartet representative for many years, has endorsed this idea.

What these efforts toward the fund realize is that one of the consequences from previous failures has been an incredulity gap that now exists between the two peoples. If this cannot be bridged, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to drift further apart, making any deal politically impossible for the parties to sign. The ‘culture of peace’ work is needed to ensure that the populations move their leaders closer together, rather than drive them further apart.

With the revelation that there is agreed upon text out there, it should be released and form the basis for the proposed fund to sit upon. While borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees and the other final status suffer from a linkage that makes them rise and fall together, it is never too early to start the excruciating, necessary work of trying to break the barriers of mistrust and hate. While a culture of peace cannot survive in the absence of a political horizon, a political horizon cannot be created without a population who believes that peace is possible.

Nervous Times for Jews in America

This post appeared in the Jerusalem Post February 7th 2017

Over the past month, there have been 57 bomb threats to 48 Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) around the United States. Jewish infants sleep at our JCCs in daycare, our toddlers learn their first Hebrew letters in the JCC classrooms, our children attend camps held across the JCC network and our community comes together to learn within the JCC halls. The JCC movement has been the beating heart of the American Jewish experience, and it is now under terrorist threat, yet no one outside the Jewish community seems to care much.

At the largest civil rights marches in the past twenty years, the women’s march did not mention the threats to the Jewish community during the intersectional speeches given on the National Mall. The Trump administration has been silent in the face of hundreds of Jews being evacuated on almost a weekly basis from their community centers.

Outside of the bomb threats, we have had Neo-Nazi marches planned against a Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, swastikas pop up across the New York mass transportation system, and a shul in Chicago’s windows smashed in. A sense of anxiety has crept into the American Jewish community that the hard won safety of US Jewry might be shifting.

American Jews, unlike their European counterparts, have, since around the 1960s, considered themselves as part of the white majority. When I arrived in the US five years ago from the UK, I was surprised when my wife told me to tick the white box on the ethnic surveys that I had to fill out on various government forms. Growing up in the UK I, like most other European Jews I knew, had always ticked the other box on the census and written in ‘Jewish’ in the space provided.

The otherness of European Jewry was not controversial. We did not suffer persecution from the government for not being part of the majority. It was just how things were. You knew that those in the majority saw you as different, and you made your peace with it or you left. I enjoyed full and equal treatment in the UK as a British-Jew, and also suffered from some anti-Semitism, but generally enjoyed life as a minority group.

In the US, the integration of the American Jewish community into the majority of the US population was a shining achievement of the community. Joe Lieberman as a vice-presidential nominee was seen as the height of integration and no one saw Sen. Bernie Sanders’s faith as something that would be questionable in his campaign- if anything, his lack of religiosity was called into question. The hyphenated identity of all US Citizens, being a nation of immigrants, allowed the Jewish-American to be just as American as the Italian-American or the Irish-American.

Yet with the steady beat of the neo-Nazi ‘alt-right’ within the 2016 election campaign and the nativist appeals that undergirded President Trump’s win, the question of the place of American-Jews within the fabric of US society seemed to open up again. Op-Eds on if Jews were white started to appear, much to the glee of racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Just days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the bomb threats started and the anxiety started to grow.

As Jews were feeling a little nervous, the women’s march came and as I watched the power of millions of American’s marching, I was a little annoyed that the threats to the JCCs somehow were left out of the many speeches going through the various challenges minorities were facing in this new era. It felt like a betrayal of solidarity and an extension of the campus debates of whether the Jewish experience fitted into the intersectional struggle.

Yet this nervousness changed to fear during the embarrassing and shambolic episode of the White House’s handling of the Holocaust Memorial Day statement. I was not particularly upset by the administration’s oversight in leaving Jews out of their statement, mistakes happen. But when called out on it the administration went out of their way to insult and denigrate everyone who disagreed with them. The White House chief of staff first came out saying that ‘everyone suffered in the Holocaust.’ I am not sure how Mr. Priebus’s family suffered, but my grandparents, who came over to the UK as part of the Kindertrasport while their families were murdered, suffered a little more than the general population at the time.

After the Zionist Organization of American (ZOA) and the Republican Jewish Committee (RJC) issued gentle criticism of the statement, Sean Spicer, the White House Press secretary called ZOA and the RJC “pathetic”. Mr. Spicer’s defense was that the author was Jewish, or as Saturday Night Live put it, “the guy who wrote the statement was super-Jewy, so back off.”

The idea that if a Jewish member of staff has written something it is immune from complaint demonstrates the fallacy in believing that Mr. Trump’s Jewish picks will protect us from his neo-Nazi white nationalist supporters.

As US Jews attempt to come to terms with the changing environment we should be aware that we do have allies. The state representatives in Montana came out in support of the community against the neo-Nazis, passengers riding in the cars cleaned off the graffiti on the subway in New York, and the Chicago catholic diocese pledged solidarity with the Chicago Loop Synagogue that was attacked.

Yet for this nervous moment to pass we need both our government, and the resistance to it, to recognize that American Jews are feeling a little frightened right now and some kind words and solidary are needed sooner rather then later.

Is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other?

This piece is coauthored with Sarah Yerkes and was published by Brookings on Jan 4th

 Much has been written about Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while most of the analysis has focused on whether the speech was too harsh on Israel or how well Kerry defended the U.S. abstention in the United Nations, one theme of the speech has been overlooked: the idea that the two-state solution’s cause of death is not likely to be settlements or incitement, but rather the total lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. As Kerry said:

“In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.”

That line is important for multiple reasons. First, it underscores that the belief gap between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today is so wide that even if they agree completely on all of the final status issues—borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements—they are incapable of making a deal. Second, the leaders on both sides will never take the necessary risks for an agreement without overwhelming public support. That is, while public trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and lasting peace, it is a necessary one. And third, the innovation that is needed to get to a deal is not finding ever-new bridging formulas on the final status issues, of which the Kerry principles are just the latest iteration, but rather a focus on how to start traversing the incredulity gap that divides the people.

Mind the gap

Secretary Kerry is correct that nothing expands the belief gap more than continued settlement building on the Israeli side and glorification of violence on the Palestinian side. The crux of the quest for peace has been the concept of land for peace, and both parties seem incapable of giving the other side what they need to believe. Israelis may talk a good game, but Netanyahu’s statements about his willingness to negotiate land fall on deaf ears while settlement outposts continue to grow. The Palestinian security cooperation might keep the worst of the violence off the streets of Israel, but no level of coordination will be enough while stabbers and shooters of Israeli civilians are lionized by Fatah and monuments are dedicated to them.

Building trust between the populations requires different strategies than those for building track-one negotiations. It requires a systematic outreach approach to civil society, both in attention and, when appropriate, funding. At best, the U.S. government, alongside the other interested nations, aided civil society work in episodic bursts. At worst, they saw it as irrelevant while negotiations were ongoing.

We have both worked for years—one of us within the U.S. government, the other with Israeli, Palestinian, and American NGOs—to make the case that any peace process will fail without public support. Thus, we agree with Kerry’s comments that focusing solely on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and ignoring the people will only perpetuate this situation of total distrust. Yet it is frustrating that it took Kerry four years to understand this point.

To be clear, the civil society track is an “and” rather than an “or.” It buttresses other strategies and enables their successes, rather than stands alone. While it is not sufficient, it is necessary for any initiative to be successful.

Unlike settlements and incitement, which are driven far more by Israeli and Palestinian domestic considerations than international policy, engagement with the Israeli and Palestinian publics is one area where the U.S. negotiating team could have played a positive and effective role. Had Secretary Kerry realized in 2012 the importance of encouraging the public to push their leaders to stay at the negotiating table, he would have likely invested more time and money in supporting the efforts of civil society groups dedicated to preserving the two-state solution. Instead, the State Department largely ignored civil society, remaining laser-focused on the top leaders.

There is one important exception to this point. The U.S. government has repeatedly and strongly defended Israeli civil society in the face of an increasing attack by the Israeli government. During Kerry’s tenure as Secretary, the United States forcefully pushed back against different iterations of a harsh NGO law that particularly targeted foreign funding of human rights organizations.

However, during the 2013-2014 negotiations, Kerry made over three dozen trips to Israel and the West Bank. Yet despite the millions of miles flown and the tremendous amount of time that the secretary spent in the region, he never found a moment to meet with civil society. These were the groups, the people, whose expectations were raised when President Obama said in his 2013 speech in Jerusalem:

“And let me say this as a politician—I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Civil societies were expected to market the negotiations to their skeptical people, knowing that their governments were pouring cold water on them. Throughout the 14 months of negotiations, no senior member of the negotiating team held a town hall or public meeting with those who were expected to sell the process—either to hear their concerns or to give them the necessary boost to build domestic support for their efforts. And while there were some private attempts at outreach to civil society, they were insufficient and lacked the necessary high-level support to move the dial. When even the negotiators don’t take the efforts of those supporting them seriously, it is hard for them to be taken seriously within their own societies and by their own leadership.

Throughout the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $10 million a year in funding reconciliation programs between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. Not once did this line item make it into the Obama administration’s budget. Each year it was added to the federal budget after considerable effort on the congressional level in an ever-more difficult fiscal environment. When compared to how much the United States spends on military assistance to Israel and paying down the debts of the Palestinian Authority, it is a fraction of the resource to something that the administration only now recognizes as the underlying foundation to move forward.

Ball in Trump’s court

The next administration, whose dedication to the two-state solution is questionable, might look for some out-of-the-box ideas to try and unstick the parties and move the situation to a more stable setting. If we have any advice for them it is this, it starts with hope and change. It might seem odd that the Obama slogan needs to the be organizing philosophy for their approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but without hope, the parties will never move beyond their retrenchment. The key to hope is change, that the status quo can be different, that people do have agency.

To help each society recognize this potential, all the tools in the foreign policy toolkit must be used, including working with civil society groups. That’s essential for delivering that message and demonstrating to skeptical people that we are in a new era with new opportunities.

This should include:

  • Senior level advisors, including the new advisor for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, meeting with not just the parties, but civil society groups privately as well publically;
  • Inclusion of the USAID people-to-people reconciliation grant program into the federal budget; and
  • Leveraging U.S. dollars off those of the rest of the international community in the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which currently enjoys bipartisan support, that can provide the necessary bandwidth and budget for a systemic approach to the trust deficit.

We are glad Secretary Kerry understands how important it is to establish trust and confidence among the leaders in order to preserving the two-state solution. And we are glad he made a strong case for why the Israeli and Palestinian people must push their leaders to take political risks.

With the Paris peace conference on the horizon, a new U.S. administration being sworn in, and the parties jockeying for position in the new environment we hope that the lessons that took four years for Secretary Kerry to learn can be remembered and reflected on as seriously as the principles that he presented.

Why US Liberals have a head start on the fight back

This article appeared in the Forward 

As the endless autopsies of the 2016 election continue to pour in, what is clear is that the left needs a new organizing message. Luigi Zingales warns us against attacking Trump in order to focus on his policies, and Mark Lilla decries the end of identity politics for the progressive movement, but what is the foundational message that can serve as the cornerstone of the liberal comeback?

As a newcomer to America, it appears obvious to me that American liberals have an inbuilt advantage over their European counterparts. As a born and bred British citizen, I remember well the debates that Gordon Brown faced when trying to define British values. Coming in after the failure of the multiculturalism, a tactic that did not seem to create a cohesive society, Prime Minister Brown decided to call for community cohesion. What the community was supposed to unify toward became a national conversation about what British values are today.

America does not suffer from this problem. The civic-nationalism that is America’s founding creed, and its populace of hyphenated identities, allows for an inclusive patriotism accessible to all. The Irish-American, Jewish-American, African-American and Muslim-American can look to the second part of their hyphen and see a commonality. The Constitution and Bill of Rights lay out a doctrine that is fundamentally inclusive. The universal nature of the American experiment, its civil religion, is the core of American exceptionalism. What makes America the shining city on the hill is its openness to all those striving toward the values to which we all hold dear.

These values are what allowed Hamilton, the musical, to be beloved by Vice-President Dick Cheney and President Obama. It is what enabled Captain Humayan Khan to serve the nation. It is the centerpiece of America’s soft power around the world.

In the most recent election, Donald Trump’s campaign carefully turned American patriotism into nationalism. For most, it was economic nationalism, for others, it was white nationalism. In each case it was a zero sum game- if you were not gaining, it was the fault of an “other”. Those “others” could be the countries, like China and Mexico, that Trump says saw us as an easy mark. But they could be American immigrants and minorities that some felt received unfair help from the Federal government, enabling them to leapfrog “real Americans” in social advancement. The rallying cry was America First, and he convinced his voters that they were the real America; the “others”, including other Americans, were responsible for keeping them down.

The key to gaining back the narrative is to reclaim the patriotic mantel. Baked into our social values is a pride in being American. There is a reason why E pluribus unum has been the unofficial motto of the United States.

Democrats searching for an organizing philosophy that can rebuild the party, from the local to the federal level, do not need to start from scratch. The American base setting is one of optimism. It is one of faith, service and the belief that anyone can rise to the top. If a Trump administration aims to turn Americans against each other in a national Apprentice competition, Democrats can rebuild through an appeal to civic service and belief in community.

This does mean a reorientation. We must move away from messages implying that the state has the only answer to inequality. American fear of the federal government goes back to the founding of the nation. A return to communal resilience and a re-creation of social capital can be the fertile ground where red districts become purple or even blue. Promoting programs in the community, dealing with common problems, and linking those left behind by globalization can be a far more effective than speaking about tax credits.

We also need to find ways to link communities of faith around common service projects. As the evangelical community, which overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Trump, continues to define their political identity in these changing times, where public morality is no longer their touchstone, the left should try engaging with them in service projects that link black and white churches, multi-faith projects and those that serve the poor. Not only will these provide new avenues to help bridge cultural divides, but they will also provide opportunities to campaign on common causes and enable a less partisan divide.

Finally, and this has been written before, we must concentrate on what we share as a nation, rather than the identities that divide us. We cannot and should not descend into demography and think that it ensures a democratic future. The hard fought wins for communities of color and others who have been historically discriminated against must never be given up. But we must be for more than just battles for minority groups. The American values that immigrant groups accept so proudly should give the native population a great comfort. It’s those values, and the proponents of them, that are the best messengers to a socially anxious population. Whether the Islamic gold star family or the job-creating first generation immigrant CEO, these are the leaders that can reframe the debate away from a narrow nationalism and towards a civic patriotism.

2016 in general has shaken liberals the world over to our core. Being a new immigrant to America, I truly believe that we have a head start that no liberal democratic party has. We have as a nation agreed upon what our shared values are. We now just need to live up to them.

We will never find our synthesis

Times of Israel 12/9/16

Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on ‘the new Jewish Question’ has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.

Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.

Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links- the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.

That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heart ache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.

While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the Shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.

While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.

Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.

Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.

For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.

In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.