December 7, 2019

Opening Up American-Israeli Conversations at Z3 Conference

Bret Stephens; Photo by Saul Bromberger

More than 1,000 people from across the political spectrum gathered at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Nov. 10 for the opening of the fifth annual Z3 conference, which was designed to create a new model for how world Jewry and Israelis engage in the 21st century. 

Former Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni gave the opening keynote address and New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens delivered the closing remarks.

At the opening plenary, Oshman Family JCC CEO Zack Bodner introduced the three core principles of Z3: Unity, Not Uniformity (honoring differences while working for unity of the Jewish people); Engaging as Equal Partners (gathering Israelis and Diaspora Jews to build a common future); and Diversity of Voices (including Zionists of differing political and religious backgrounds and perspectives.) 

“We have to find a new way to engage with each other, to transcend our differences and rise above them,” he said, adding that when bombs fall in Israel and Jews are shot in Pittsburgh, Poway or Paris, “we feel the pain, the suffering of our brothers and sisters.” 

In her remarks, Livni thanked American Jews for their support of Israel, calling it “touching.” 

“We are at our best in times of problems,” she said, “but I want to ask, is that enough? I believe we need more than being united because there are those who are against us.” 

She also spoke about the loss of Israel’s underdog reputation. “We feel we are the David and [the world] sees the Goliath.” She also said she believes that for Hillel students, being liberal “means [being] vegan and [pro-] BDS” (boycott, divestment and sanctions). She added that on campus “it’s becoming problematic to defend and stand with the State of Israel. We can criticize Israeli policy as long as we have the understanding that Israel has the right to exist as a secure, democratic state and has the right to defend itself.” 

“We have to find a new way to engage with each other, to transcend our differences and rise above them.”
— Zack Bodner

She closed her remarks by comparing the State of Israel to a jigsaw puzzle with different parts coming together to create a “wonderful picture.You are part of this picture,” she said, “and the responsibility of the Jewish community is to make the connection between the different parts of the puzzle.”

‘The Anti-Semitism That Binds Us’

Throughout the day at the conference, there were 23 breakout sessions attendees could choose from.  

A panel discussion on “The Anti-Semitism That Binds Us” featured professor Adam Ferziger, who holds the R.S.R. Hirsch Chair in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Ferziger, 55, who was born in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Israel when he was 22, said there has been a big visual change since his childhood, as guards now stand in front of synagogues in America. 

“What does it mean to grow up with the sense that you’re under attack, that there are clear groups that intend violence?” he asked, wondering if this was becoming part and parcel of American Jewish identity.

Panelist Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said, “In crisis narratives, the panic and fear that drives us is morally limiting. We miss out on a lot of what’s possible for the Jewish community.” 

He attributed the increase in anti-Semitic incidients to gun violence and the rise of “political polarities which identify minorities and ethnic communities.”

Panelist Tehila Friedman, director of the Jewish Peoplehood Department and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said there is a clear rise in anti-Semitic sentiment from the far left.

“Where is the line between legitimate criticism against the Israeli government and policy and anti-Semitism?” she asked. 

‘Zionism and Feminism’

During a session titled “Three Generations, Three Voices: Zionism and Feminism,” Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Founder Blu Greenberg said, “Jewish, feminist, Zionist. They mean everything to me, each of those identities. To be a Jew has always meant to be a Zionist.”

Greenberg reflected on her past responses to anti-Israel criticism, including her participation in a dialogue group involving Palestinian women where she had what she called “a seat at the table of historical conversation. I think I checked out when the going got rough and the uphill battle looked too difficult,” she said. “I have to not throw the towel in and say. ‘Let someone else do it.’ ” 

Civil rights attorney and Zioness Movement Executive Director Amanda Berman weighed in, saying, “You can be a proud Zionist and feminist and fight for social justice without checking any part of your identity at the door. We don’t have to be held responsible for Israeli policy to participate in our social activist agenda. We need to remind the world that we’re not just fighting for Jews. It’s too important for us to allow the division that is anti-Zionism in these spaces,” which, she said, can distract attention away from issues like health care and equal pay. 

Knesset member and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Rachel Azaria spoke about her experiences fighting segregated buses and streets in religious neighborhoods. Her experience, she said, gave her “a peek into the black hole of the Israeli rabbinate. I knew I was Orthodox and a feminist, but I never put them together.” 

She added, “We always sit on the shoulders of the women who came before us and always make room for the next generation.”

Closing Address

Stephens called out the Donald Trump administration for using language that is anti-Semitic dogwhistling, including singling out “ ‘globalists’ … conspiring to undermine American sovereignty in part by opening the borders to replace American workers with cheap foreign labor.” 

He identified these tropes as the ones at play when neo-Nazis chanted in Charlottesvile, ‘You will not replace us.’ “Cultivate your instinct for danger among those who you imagine are on your side,” he said, addressing the right.

He added that because no one calls for the end of any other state except Israel, “it behooves you liberals, because you’re so attentive to microaggressions and mansplaining and racist dogwhistles … to call out veiled prejudice when it comes to hatred of Jews.”

“We’re not yelling in the wind,” Bodner concluded. “We have active partners who want us to succeed. We are ready to be a part of this conversation. Let’s get going.”

A Los Angeles Z3 event co-sponsored by the Jewish Journal will be held on Jan. 26 at Stephen Wise Temple.