“It’s not going great,” Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer said. “I’m not going to lie.”
It, in this case, is “pluralism, peoplehood, and the Jewish state” — the topic of his upcoming talk at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. (See box.) And while the talk itself doubtless will go well, the relationship between the Israeli government and the rest of the Jewish people, particularly American Jews, has been strained in recent years, with each day seeming to bring new examples.
Dr. Kurtzer — he has a doctorate in Jewish studies from Harvard — heads the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the American twin of the Jerusalem-based Hartman Institute founded by the late Rabbi David Hartman and now headed by his son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
“We talk about the bi-continental challenges of running a bi-continental institution,” he said. “It’s not easy. But having a strong foothold in both communities can be leveraged for making a difficult conversation possible. As an Israeli institution that is part of the Israeli Zionist mainstream as well as part of the American Jewish organizational landscape, we are in conversation with American and Israeli Jews in their own idioms and languages. We have a unique ability to bring the voices of each community to each other.”
Yet despite the Institute’s ability to help the conversation along, at the highest levels it’s not going well.
“For a long time the Jewish people were held together by their imagination about the project of the State of Israel,” Dr. Kurtzer said. “One of the challenges we have right now is the translation of Zionism into reality.”
In reality, the conflict within the Jewish people can be seen in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, released Tuesday, complaining about his policy toward African migrants in Israel. The 18 American Jews who signed the letter are all Democratic members of Congress, and it represented an unprecedented break between American Jewish lawmakers and the Israeli government.
“There have been news stories that there are voices in the prime minister’s office that believe the liberal wing of American Jewry is not long for this world, so there’s certainly no political value in maintaining relations with them,” Dr. Kurtzer said. “If he feels the American Jewish community is disappearing, it’s not a long term bet, then there’s no long-term value in terms of Jewish peoplehood.”
Dr. Kurtzer believes Jewish peoplehood is an enduring value.
“Let’s say the prime minister and his agenda are not serving the interest of Jewish peoplehood,” he said. In that case, “I don’t believe we are well served by blaming the prime minister and distracting from any responsibility we have” for the disconnections.
“It’s convenient to make the distancing of American Jewry from Israel a single-issue phenomenon. You have the voices that say that if the government of Israel wasn’t endorsing the occupation and American Jewish leaders weren’t supporting it, this problem would be solved. That position is naive.
“American Jews are undergoing massive ethnic, religious, and political changes. The State of Israel is undergoing massive ethnic, religious, and political changes. As American Jews, we have to take our responsibilities in the relationship seriously and not simply look for a single cause to blame a complex social problem.”
Part of that answer, he said, “is to populate the relationship with new meanings, rather than trying to retrieve the meanings it once had.”
A generation or two ago, he said, American Jews had an important role to play “in the project of a much more vulnerable Jewish state. Now the state of Israel’s challenge is in the marketplace of Jewish identities. Does it provide meaning to American Jews?”
It’s a mistake, he said, to take Israel for granted, “just because it worked as part of the identity of American Jews in the past.”
And it’s also a mistake not to realize that “our politics of loyalty around Israel are actually hurting the cause of being pro-Israel.”
The Hartman Institute, he said, “is trying to introduce a countercultural posture of learning and nuance and serious discourse into the community.”
In northern New Jersey, the New York branch of the Hartman Institute has been most visible with its iEngage program of Israel education, which the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey brought to several area synagogues a couple of years ago. Several area rabbis, among them Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Joel Pitkosky, have studied in the Institute’s Jerusalem branch.
“The majority of the work we do is around the table with leaders in the Jewish community, studying the big questions,” Dr. Kurtzer said.
With political divisions bigger than ever, with the conflict between Israeli and American Jews, is it possible to stop the Jewish community from fissuring?
“It might be too late,” he conceded. “But the only technique I know that creates pluralism that really works is the pluralism that comes about through learning. I have seen the way where we can sit down with people on the opposite side of both the Israeli and American political spectrum and use learning as a way to humanize the other. It doesn’t mean they agree but they don’t demonize the other. We’re not going to reach consensus but we still might be able to sustain some community.”
Who: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
What: Talk on “Israel at 70: Pluralism, Peoplehood, and the Jewish State”
When: Thursday, May 10, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck