It’s complicated

It’s complicated

How to be a committed Zionist, a realist, a particularist, and a universalist — all at the same time

Dr. Elana Stein Hain (Shalom Hartman Institute of North America)
Dr. Elana Stein Hain (Shalom Hartman Institute of North America)

What do you do when you have to deal with conflicting realities?

Facts are facts. Things happened, or they didn’t happen.

Beyond that, everything gets more complicated very quickly. Interpretations can vary wildly. Motivations can be seen clearly and accurately or they can be misunderstood, and because motivations by definition drive human beings, and because human beings don’t necessarily know what motivates them, and often are motivated by more than one thing, and tend not to come with labels explaining them — the upshot is that motivations aren’t so easy to tease out.

And when you’re in the middle of this reality? When you have strong emotions about it, and strong family and religious and ethnic ties to one side of it? And perhaps some fear — perhaps appropriate fear — of the other side?

And when you firmly believe that there is one side that is more right than the other — that’s your side — but you understand that the other side has its own narrative as well?

Then everything gets even more complicated.

And if that place is Israel, and if you’re a Jew and a Zionist, and also a realist — what do you do? Even more basically, what do you think?

On Sunday, May 6, Dr. Elana Stein Hain, the scholar in residence and director of faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, will talk about that problem in “Approaching Competing Narratives: Reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” (See box.)

Her talk grows out of a new Hartman curriculum that examined the Six-Day War, 50 years on. “Part of the goal was thinking about the major milestones in Israeli history, and what big ideas those milestones introduced,” she said. “In 1967, much of the conversation was around Jerusalem, the relationship between religion and politics, and between politics and land.”

That, however, was just one milestone; “what I will be speaking about now is based on the partition plan of 1947.” That’s the United Nations-approved but ill-fated plan to divide Palestine into two states, one for Jews, one for Arabs. Two states for two peoples. It did not end well; it did not even begin well. “The Arab world rejected it, and went to war against the new Jewish state,” Dr. Stein Hain said. That was Israel’s War of Independence.

“That’s what got me thinking,” she continued. “I started wondering how 20th century Zionist thinkers, mostly but not exclusively in Israel, thought about the narratives, because it was understood immediately that it was going to be impossible to follow the partition plan.

“I wanted to study four contemporary Zionist thinkers” — Israelis Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), and Yakov Meir Nagen (who is only 50 and thriving), and the Frenchman Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). “I look at them to give people a sense of what you do, as a Zionist, with competing narratives. I think it is very important right now for American Jews to have sophisticated discussions about these things.

“It’s important for many reasons, and among those reasons because it’s the question the next generation is asking about.

“And it’s important because we believe that Israel’s strength is in its goodness, its righteousness, and its uprightness. We have a lot to be proud of — and we can face these hard questions.”

It really is complicated, Dr. Stein Hain said. “For American Jews in the post-modern age, the question is trying to understand my loyalty to my own story — the story of the state of Israel — and also being able to understand how to account for the other side of the story, the Palestinian narrative. What should my response be? These are important things to think about if you care about the Jewish state.”

This is a loaded subject, the question of how to navigate not only loyalty but belief in the moral correctness of your own position without negating the humanity of the people on the other side of an ugly divide. That’s why it’s helpful to consider how eminent, unassailably Zionist thinkers framed the question.

“If you are a person who generally considers yourself modern and in touch with the world, you know that there are approaches to things that are not your approach,” Dr. Stein Hain said. “There are many different ways to deal with that. One of the ways, of course, is just to flat out deny those approaches, but none of the things I am going to be talking about are in that camp.

“All of them are people for whom love of the state of Israel was a religious tenet or a social tenet or a moral tenet or a historic tenet. For each of them, Israel was deeply personal, core to his identity.”

Also, and importantly, she added, “these are people who are holding the middle. They are not relativists, who are saying that every version is a true version,” that facts are relative, that contradictory bits of hard data can all be true at the same time. “That they are not head-in-the-sand dogmatists,” holding onto their version of reality despite its clear impossibility.

Like the thinkers she will discuss, Dr. Stein Hain said, “I am committed to the state of Israel. I fight for it. I work on its behalf. And part of that work is being able to have some coherent way of thinking about the other side’s narrative.

“Even though there is deep discomfort about it, there are more and more American Jews who are trying to do that work.”

It is particularly true among young American Jews, who are trying to fit the specific particularism of Zionism into the larger universalism that informs their lives. “That’s why it is so important to have these conversations now,” Dr. Stein Hain said. “It’s important to reinvigorate the conversation specifically because of the generational rift. It’s not as if people weren’t talking about these ideas 50 years ago, but we now are at a difficult moment in the American Jewish community, and the way to help that is to talk about the hard questions.

“And it is complicated,” she added. “I don’t know if one overarching approach ever will be sufficient, or if it constantly will be a work in progress.”

Dr. Stein Hain is qualified to lead this discussion in many ways. She holds a doctorate in religion from Columbia; she is also a graduate of Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies for women — GPATS — and of Cardozo’s Interdisciplinary Fellowship in Jewish Law and Legal Theory. As these affiliations show, she is a birthright Orthodox Jew.

And she is also deeply connected to Bergen County; she grew up in Teaneck, she and her family belonged to Congregation Bnai Yeshurun there, and she went to elementary and middle school at Yavneh and to high school at Frisch.

“I am a firm believer that the future has to be built on the past,” she said. “I think that looking at what thinkers before us have said is a way to root our thinking as we become the next link in the chain.”

Who: Dr. Elana Stein Hain of the Sholom Hartman Institute of
North America

What: Will talk about “Approaching Competing Narrative: Reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series

Where: At Temple Beth Rishon, 585 Russell Avenue, Wyckoff

When: On Sunday, May 6, at 9:45 a.m.

What else: Breakfast buffet; the talk starts at 10:30 and will be followed
by Q & A

How much: Synagogue members, $15 in advance, $20 at the door;
non-members, $25.

More information or reservations: or
(201) 891-4466

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