December 16, 2018

Tikkun Olam Nation is a deeper Israel

Public relations is all about putting your best foot forward. If you want to impress someone during an interview, you don’t volunteer that you have a habit of waking up late. You don’t look sloppy — you look clean and professional. As my mother used to tell me, it’s important to always make a good first impression.

In recent years, pro-Israel groups have been faced with an unusual dilemma: How do you create a good impression for Israel when the country’s image has already been tainted by the over-the-top criticism and condemnations it receives from much of the world?

The general reaction among mainstream groups has been to double down and bring people to see the best of Israel. This makes sense. We’ve all heard that the best hasbara is a visit to Israel. The vibrancy and diversity of Israeli society, along with its creative culture and rich biblical history, are a welcome tonic from the poisonous stuff people often hear about the Jewish state.

But while these positive and upbeat trips to Israel are worthy, they overlook a deeper side that is also powerful and moving: The Israel of social justice. This is the Israel where thousands of social activists wake up each day not to create a new high-tech company or a new television show or a new restaurant — but to make the country a better, kinder place.

This is the Israel of unsung heroes who love their country and who fight for the rights of minorities and refugees, fight to empower women and to advance religious freedom. They work to provide shelter for runaway youth, build bridges among Arabs and Jews, create nature hikes for people in wheelchairs, and to help repair Israel in countless other ways.

It’s crazy to think that, as the Chronicle of Philanthropy points out, there are 29,000 nonprofit organizations in Israel, a country the size of New Jersey.

How do you explain this extraordinary amount of social activism? My friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller says it’s partly due to “the intense concentration of Jews in one place.” As he tells it, “Making the world a better place has been a Jewish aspiration since the time of the Exodus. It’s part of our messianic belief that we have a responsibility to improve the world, wherever we live. It’s not a coincidence that Israel’s national anthem is called ‘The Hope.’ ”

So, if Israeli society is bursting with groups that offer so much compassion and hope, why are those groups not playing a bigger role in the organized missions to Israel?

My guess is that the Jewish establishment is reluctant to show Israel’s vulnerable side. After all, when you visit an Israeli nonprofit such as Hiddush, which advances religious freedom, or the Jerusalem African Community Center, which helps African refugees, you don’t just see tikkun olam, you see serious problems in Israeli society that need repairing.

What will resonate more with college students — the classic, all-powerful and successful Israel, or an honest and compassionate Israel trying to improve itself?

Do we have the courage to show an Israel that needs repairing?

It turns out that someone I know very well is already doing it. Of course, it’s impossible for me to be objective and unbiased about this person, because she’s my 24-year-old daughter, Tova. With that caveat, I can tell you that, after graduating from UCLA two years ago, Tova partnered with an Israeli tour company (Keshet) to start an initiative called Tikkun Olam Journeys that takes U.S. college students to experience “the Israel of social justice” and to meet Israeli activists. For 10 days, students visit as many as 27 nonprofits working to make Israel a better place. It’s as simple, and complicated, as that.

How have the trips gone so far? From what I hear, the journeys were meaningful and emotional. Even with all the social problems they encountered, the students appreciated the honesty and the sense of hope (you can see their reactions on the website

What’s important is that the trips don’t show problems in isolation. They show them through the lens of social activists. In other words, the focus is on action, on what Israelis — both Jews and non-Jews — are doing to improve Israel. 

All too often, we focus on Israel’s humanitarian efforts in places such as Haiti and Africa, rather than inside Israel itself. But while Israel’s international work is commendable, it is the tikkun olam happening inside the Jewish state that offers hope for the moral future of Israeli society. 

Now, with Israel’s moral standing continually being challenged because of its intractable conflict with the Palestinians, it’s worth asking: What makes more sense to feature — the Israel of high-tech startups or the Israel of social activists? What will resonate more with college students — the classic, all-powerful and successful Israel, or an honest and compassionate Israel trying to improve itself?

Like I said, I have a personal interest in this one, so I can’t be objective. But I do know this: Because the students are the ones we’re all trying to impress, we ought to ask them what they think.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at