Jewish professionals and volunteers will gather next week in Los Angeles for the GA, The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They will convene under the somewhat vague headline “Venture Further.”
Further to where? This is probably a matter for debate, but the slogan conveys a clear sentiment: What we have now is a transitional phase. Our job is to carve a course that will move us forward “into the future of Jewish education, philanthropy and our community.”
The future of “our community.” Here is something to think about: Is “our community” the North American Jewish community or the whole of the Jewish world? Clearly, in talking about a specific community, as large as it might be, there is also a need to keep an eye on other communities, as no Jewish community is an island. The future of “our community” must consider the future of the community that it not “our community,” but someone else’s.
In this spirit, and before this special annual occasion of discussion — where I will be a speaker this year — I would like to briefly suggest a simple framework for understanding the state of the Jewish world, and, hence, the test we must pass as we attempt to venture further. I know, many of the things I am about to write are obvious. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, as not to drown in a conversation about marginal or irrelevant matters.
So, here it is:
The Jewish world rests mainly on two pillars: North America and Israel. These two pillars have different characteristics that occasionally put them at odds, and this has been especially true over the past couple of months. Their main challenges are quite simple: For Israel, it is physical survival; for North America, it is cultural survival.
Israel is located in a problematic and dangerous area, it is small, it is surrounded by people who want to see it gone. All other problems — and of course it has other problems — pale in comparison. Keeping Jews alive, in a Jewish state, is the main concern of Israel. As for culture, most worries are exaggerated: A long process of communal design eventually will produce an Israeli-Jewishness.
Jews in North America are physically secure. Their country is the most powerful on earth (I know, North America also includes Canada, Mexico and other countries). The challenge they face is cultural. They need a Jewish culture that can be preserved in a modern world, and an open society, where they are a small minority. They need it to be intense and meaningful enough to survive the expected erosion of a minority culture in a majority society.
That’s it. That’s the challenge for “our community.”
Can Israel overcome the challenge? I hope it can. To succeed, it must be strong, realistic, sober, battle ready, tough. And since this is Israel’s main challenge, it would be nice if the Jews of North America would attempt to assist Israel in this arena — even as they attempt to advance the other causes they have in mind for Israel.
Can North American Jews overcome the challenge? I hope they can. To succeed, they must strengthen their communal institutions, invest in education and find a way to have a “community” that means more than a group of people who have Jewish ancestry. And because this is their main challenge, it would be nice if Israel would assist them — even it is not always convenient, politically or otherwise.
The first step in using this formula to venture further is not to deny its validity: There are many who argue that Israel has issues larger than security, that it is about to lose its Jewish soul. These people, although right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the right order. There are also many who argue that the Jews of North America have issues more important than reinvigorating their Jewish culture — fighting the alt-right, or correcting Israel’s course, or whatever. These people, while right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the proper order.
Simplicity is key: Israel needs to bolster its security — the rest will take care of itself. North American Jews need to bolster their culture — the rest will take care of itself.
As to how to achieve these two goals? That is what the GA is for.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.