February 27, 2020

Z3 Conference: Creating Stronger U.S.-Israel Connections Through Conversations

From left: Yehonatan Indursky, co-creator of ‘Shtisel’; Ayelet Zurer, actress; Rachel Kaplan, EVP and Head of Scripted at Keshet Studios; and TV industry executive Marc Graboff (moderator), at the final plenary of the Z3 conference. Photo courtesy of Steven Wise Temple’s Facebook page

After injecting my gums with local anesthetic, the dentist asked what I thought of George Soros. I don’t actually think a lot about Soros, a Hungarian American billionaire and philanthropist. I know he was pro-Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and has sharply criticized Israel, but I always have believed that starting political conversations with someone holding a drill isn’t the best idea, so I kept my responses vague. Then he shifted to talking about how Democrats’ support for liberal causes means they’re not friends of Israel. I said, “It’s complicated,” and that it was hard to generalize about any one group of people because individuals’ opinions may vary. He agreed, and the drilling began.

Two days later, on Jan. 26, I was among 300 attendees at Stephen Wise Temple for the Z3 conference, to drill down — less literally —  into the complicated relationship between Israel and the American Diaspora.

The conference is part of the Z3 project, whose goal is to “promote a peoplehood-oriented Zionism and stronger bonds between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, through partnerships, events and seminars.” Organizers estimated that about 10% to 15% of participants were Israeli, with strong representation at panels and plenaries.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the Journal and The Forward, together with organizational partners, the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Israel Policy Forum and Hebrew Union College, and synagogue partners Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Judea, Congregation Kol Ami, Congregation Or Ami, Sinai Temple, University Synagogue and IKAR. 

In my experience, success at connection rather than division hinges on the intention that we bring to the space when we commit to civil discourse.

Sessions delved into “Israel and America 2020: Spanning the Divide to Find Common Ground,” and featured speakers with expertise in pluralism, politics, policy and power from Israel and the U.S., through the lens of Z3’s three principles: 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.) 

In “The Power Dynamic: Influence and Vulnerability,” Chaya Gilboa, director of Jewish Engagement at the San Diego-based Leichtag Foundation and Hartman faculty member, referenced the story of Pinchas, a zealot who speared an Israelite man who was having relations with a Midianite woman; and the Maccabees, who used violence to overthrow the Syrian-Greeks, as examples of how Jews struggle with power. 

Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit policy think tank Reut Institute and author of “Flexigidity: The Invisible Hand of Jewish Adaptability,” (2013), distinguished between power (the ability to get things done),  influence (how the concepts we create percolate with and change how other societies do things) and resilience (the ability to go through crisis and not lose our essential characteristics.) He noted that Jews have a strong, decentralized global network, stating that this is why after Hitler succeeded in nearly annihilating the Jews of Eastern Europe, there were still Jews because of these other centers of Jewish life in the “worldwide web.” He also noted that having a strong Israel and a vibrant Diaspora was a Zionist imperative, not a compromise. 

“The worldwide web of Jewish communities is as much an insurance policy for Israel as Israel is an insurance policy for those communities,” he said. 

Speaking on a panel about social media and its role in the Israel conversation, Carly Pildis from Tablet Magazine, Batya Ungar-Sargon from The Forward and I spoke about our experiences — from warm and accepting to traumatic and dramatic — using social media to connect with people who are far away from us either geographically or politically. 

In my experience, success at connection rather than division hinges on the intention that we bring to the space when we commit to civil discourse. Because social media is a space where most people are not committed to core principles of unity, social media tools can enable division or connection. As the social web grew, polarities grew and, with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, nuance dissolved quickly. Today social media spaces are more often than not negatively charged, especially in the conversation about Israel. But each of us is pressing on, trying to use social media spaces to productively connect with others. 

“The worldwide web of Jewish communities is as much an insurance policy for Israel as Israel is an insurance policy for those communities.”
— Gidi Grinstein 

The closing plenary, “Presenting Israel to the World: Israel’s Entertainment Industry and Israel’s Public Image,” featured “Shtisel” co-creator Yehonatan Indursky and one of its stars, Ayelet Zurer, as well as Rachel Kaplan, vice president of scripted at Keshet Media and executive producer on numerous series including “Our Boys”  and “The Baker and the Beauty,” based on an Israeli series. 

Zurer spoke about her journey working in the United States, which began with “B’Tipul,” the Hagai Levi series about therapy that became the HBO series “In Treatment,” and has now been produced in at least 16 countries. Kaplan said the industry continues to make shows considering the cost benefit (a whole series of Israeli TV can cost less than one episode of “Game of Thrones”), and because it’s low-cost, “the conversation is very compelling. [‘Our Boys’] was a beautiful piece of art that they got for a bargain,” she said, noting that people want creative content that is authentic, even if it’s provocative. “At the end of the day, if you’re not doing something provocative, why do it?” 

Answering a question about how Israeli television portrays Israel, Indursky said that in making art you need to “not think about how it reflects on our people … you need to put your art in the world and hope for good; that your art will talk to the audience.”

“The best thing that we can do for Israel is keep Israel on television, period,” Kaplan said. “As writers, creators, get as many people [as possible] in the conversation.” She noted that “Americans are so opinionated about Israel, especially on college campuses,” but many of the opinionated haven’t been to Israel. She urged everyone to “please read, please go and please see. It keeps the dialogue open. It starts the conversation.”

One of the conference takeaways was about forging personal connections and relationships that connect us more closely to things that are happening in Israel.  

In sharing stories about “ ‘Shtisel’ mania,” as he called it, Indursky pointed out that “telling a story about a particular place that’s very specific and very local, can be universal. ‘Shtisel’ isn’t a series about the ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “It’s about human beings.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Z3 conference took place on Jan. 29.