On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Jerusalem and Zionism on Edge

Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them. Security around the prime minister’s residence, located directly across the street from JTS’s Schocken Library, where our students in Israel meet for classes, was even more rigorous than usual. One friend told me his kids were afraid to go to school. Reassured by their parents, they went nonetheless. No one to whom I spoke had panicked; no one cowered at home, even if no one was taking needless chances. Cafes and restaurants had lots of patrons and had not posted guards at the door.  My friends agreed, as they prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that this latest and worrisome chapter of the matsav might go on for some time and would not lead to anything positive.

I sensed the same mix of foreboding, resolve, and focus on tasks near at hand in the halls of the 37th Zionist Congress. That gathering of world Jewry is what drew me to visit Jerusalem this time, as a member of the Mercaz Olami delegation of Masorti-Conservative Jews. It felt good to be there, to stand with Israel and Israelis at a time when their sense of isolation is acute. Two Israeli friends told me how much my presence there meant to them. Shabbat really did seem like a taste of the world to come, its respite followed at once by news of more violence. Israel—despite all this—was a wonderful place to be. But calm, in Jerusalem, it was not.

The most meaningful part of my trip was sitting with JTS rabbinical students at Schocken, hearing about their experience in the program in Israel thus far and giving them a chance to air their feelings at being caught in the latest outbreak of violence. I told them of the steps JTS is taking to maximize both their safety and their sense of safety. They were understandably anxious, appreciative of JTS’ concern for their well-being, and quietly determined to face whatever challenges the situation presented, along with the rest of Israel. Our brief discussion of what could or should be done to improve the situation evinced a variety of views, as it has among Israelis in general.  The intimacy and honesty of that conversation brought home the toll that violence takes, but also the solidarity it fosters, the resolve it breeds among many to work harder still for a solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress drew worldwide attention for his claim about the role of the mufti of Jerusalem in inciting the “Final Solution.”  To me the Prime Minister seemed worn out, exhausted, hardened. I appreciated the burden of the immense responsibilities he bears and even so could not understand why he made no effort to rouse this audience with the thing most needed right now: vision, hope, and aspiration. His lecture on the “ten big lies” circulated by the Palestinian Authority drew only scattered and perfunctory applause. If offered neither hope nor vision. I found that depressing.

The plenary panel of which I was a member took the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as a given, and asked whether—in 2015—there is still any point to Zionism. That movement is also somewhat on edge, and has been for some time. I explained in personal terms why I believe the bonds joining Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people remain inseverable. . . despite frequent attempts in many quarters to break them apart and widespread cynicism among Israelis that Zionism—as opposed to the State—serves any purpose. The full text of the speech I prepared is available on the JTS website.

For all my sobriety when it comes to Israel’s challenges and failings, I remain compelled by the Torah’s vision of a land given to the Children of Israel in order to build a society more just and compassionate than any that has ever previously existed, and in so doing be “a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Some Jews and Gentiles, I know, find such teachings an excuse for religious or ethnic chauvinism, or reason to reject both Judaism and Zionism out of hand. But I won’t give up on the notion that Israel remains a prominent vehicle of achieving the good that we Jews have stored up in us.  Zionism, to me, means the work done by the Jewish people the world over, together, as a people, to carry out that responsibility – work focused on but not limited to the project of building a secure, just, and democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

For this purpose, thanks to this labor, Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel lives” despite everything. I believe in all humility that such aspiration will ensure the continuing relevance of Zionism and would actually make the State more secure.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, I was greeted by a full page in Yediot featuring a picture of the Rebbe and his 1974 proclamation that “the Land of Israel is the most secure place in the world” because “the Holy One Blessed be He guards and protects every single person in Israel.” May it only be so. There is much work for you and me to do as well.


  1. rhoda neshama waller says:

    Thank you, Chancellor Eisen, for your third paragraph from the bottom. We must continue, individually, and as a people, with our work of building a just and compassionate society, one that may be a blessing to all peoples, everywhere.

  2. Art Rosenbloom says:

    Thanks for your sobering message Arnie.

    For what it’s worth, Evelyn and I are leaving for Israel tomorrow for a few days with family and friends in Tel Aviv. Then, it’s on to Jerusalem as part of the annual UJA Commission on the Jewish People visitation, a group that Evelyn used to chair. Some projects funded by UJA go to programs designed to help Palestinians, and in these dark days, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, those programs are functioning.



  3. Michael Katz says:

    I appreciated your words very much-up to the last paragraph. I’m not interested in reading the promises of the Rebbe (and especially not in a letter from the Chancellor of JTS).
    Michael Katz JTS ’79
    Westbury, NY

  4. Robert S. April says:

    Your remarks are solidly ideological and all of us hope for social justice in a peaceful Israel. But the lies of the enemy and the teaching of hate makes productive steps to peace only a dream, whereas the potential of more stabbings is a bloody reality.
    Is there something anti-Torah about stating that this is open war and that the most severe responses are justified? We must protect life, and Jewish life, before we turn
    to concerns of social justice.
    Reality is often harsh, cruel, and distasteful, but it is reality and that is the road I think your remarks should attempt to follow. Tell us a program that will help the world, and liberal Jewry, to understand the terrible reality faced by our sisters, brothers, and children in Israel. If we loved them more, we would be less concerned about the abstract goals that you seem to be preaching. Protect our own, arm to the teeth, speak to the world, and be ready for peace in any form whatsoever.

  5. Dear Arnie,
    I am preparing to teach my two classes on Israel and Zionism for our Delaware-wide Intro to Judaism course this and next Thursday. I was so inspired by your blog that I am making copies and distributing it to my students as a first step to understanding Israel and Zionism — then I’ll walk it back to Genesis 12:3 get eventually to Herzl and beyond — but your blog will be so helpful to these students. I cannot thank you enough!
    Michael Beals in Wilmington, DE

  6. alan says:

    Rabbinical students from “Schocken” ? Did your really mean, Schechter ?

  7. Lev Zaidenberg says:

    December 2015
    New York

    Dear Chancellor Eisen,

    I’m an attentive reading your blogs and I was very much impressed by the concept of “Tel Aviv Judaism” you have coined so sharply and so insightfully. Since I have been thinking about the meaning of being a Jew in Israel for many years, I’ve decided to take a liberty of sharing these thoughts with you.
    Few words about my background. I am not a JTS student, though I happen to be married to a one studying at Rabbinical School. I was born in the utterly secular environment of the Soviet Russia and knew nothing about Judaism and even Jews until my teens, when I started to read about our history and religion from all possible and impossible (and at times officially forbidden and thus dangerous) sources. Soon I became a Zionist whom I consider myself until these days. I managed to make Aliya in 1975 at the age of 21 and after forty years in the country, I think, psychologically and ideologically I should be best described as Israeli.
    I’ll start with the main points: (a) I see the astonishing secular/religious divide in Israel as a (and probably the) major challenge to the development and the success of this most important project of the Jewish people, and (b) I think the Conservative Movement in a unique position to bridge and hopefully to eliminate this divide.
    I’d like to apologize that in some of the following I may be stating things obvious or certainly very well known to you, still I need an introduction to base my analysis on and to explain my suggestions.

    The Origins and the Sources of the Divide
    Late 19th and early 20th century Zionism was a socialist and a secular movement. Similar to classical Communism, it saw a way to redemption (in our case of the Jewish people, rather than of the proletariat) in a creation “of new type of person”: liberated from the burden of slavery and superstitions of the past and ready to fight for and build a new society. Though this idea itself is deeply rooted in Tora’s ‘yetziat Miztraiim’, paradoxically Zionists decided to classify the Tora, and for that matter all of the Judaism, exactly as this type of Diaspora superstitions (even nowadays the word ‘galuti’ in modern Israeli Hebrew is demining). Unlike Communists, Zionists spectacularly succeeded in the creation of this ‘new person’. Any Jew from Diaspora, be it from New York or Moscow or Casablanca, landing in Israel for the first time, has a weird feeling: it cannot be all these guys are Jewish. Indeed Israelis look and behave in a manner radically different form paradigms of a Diaspora Jew.
    On the other side of the divide, the Haredei establishment and the community contributed their (lion’s) share. Positioning themselves as non-Zionist or in more extreme cases as anti-Zionist, not serving in the Army, and rather rightfully regarded as not paying all the taxes and receiving non proportionally large share of the welfare, they managed not only to ‘lehotzi et atzmam min ha’klal’ (to exclude themselves from the community) but also, through association, to cause a typical secular Israeli to regard Jewish religion with suspicion or even outright dislike. This is also a historical achievement of a sort: to manage to alienate vast majority of Jews from their own religion.
    Another aspect of religion in Israel is its umbilical connection to politics and political parties. One cannot be religious without making a political statement. Even the color and material of your kippa matters. The most unfortunate example are ‘kippot srugot’ (woven kippot) incorrectly called by Americans ‘modern orthodox’. The original socialist national-religious Mafdal movement, based on the ideas of Rav Cook, could have been in a perfect position to bridge the divide, unless their association with Israeli politics. Fully ‘halakhtic’ observant on one hand and fully integrated in the secular society on the other, they do not live in ghettoes and serve in the Army. Unfortunately majority of ‘kippot srugot’ are taking explicit political position regarded by many as extreme right. And it does not matter, in fact it make matters even worth, if this political position is seen as a part of their religious belief.

    The Divide and the Tel Aviv Judaism
    Reading your brilliant description of ‘Tel Aviv Judaism’ one may think that the divide is not such a big issue and that everything is fine. To quote: ‘Israelis find meaning, significance worth living and dying for, in the very fact of who and where they are. Continuing threats to Israel’s existence give that meaning reinforcement. Mix in a generous dose of especially intense family relations, reflect on shared confrontation with army, bureaucracy, missiles, in-your-face fellow Israelis, and Jews from around the world, and one has a rich tapestry of Jewishness that, while hardly “religious,” is not without transcendence’. I totally agree, but I dare say it’s not enough. There are many “secular” people looking for more meaning and spirituality in their life. Being repelled by religious establishment, they are searching in places like yoga or Buddism or militant atheism, instead of in our own millennia proven source. Yes, in Israel one doesn’t have to go to a synagogue to be a Jew, but isn’t he missing something out?
    What is missing, again quoting from your blog, is: ‘the framework where various notions of Jewishness and Judaism compete for the allegiance of Israel’s Jews, leading to the flowering of many streams—including the “secular”’.
    Paradoxically for me I found his kind of framework in the U.S., or at least in New York. I was amazed by a ‘supermarket’ of Judaic thinking, ides, denominations. Most of those are not directly connected to a political platform, or at least do not put it in the front. For an Israeli it is a completely new world of Judaism: rich, pluralistic, inviting.

    What Should Be Done
    A way should be found to replicate this supermarket of ideas be in Israel. Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist movements should be much more active in Israel and, in my view, see it as a top priority. I came across a rather paradoxical example when I attended last year a “Kunis Shlikhim” of Habad. At an enormous gathering of 6000 people there were shlikhim to many dozens of countries, including places like India, Nepal or Peru. To my astonishment I met there a young shaliakh to Tel Aviv. Why not, he said, there a lot of Jews there and we need to save them. I was also very much impressed by their modus operandi, but I’ll refer to it later.
    The development of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in Israel must be completely disconnected from the state. This will help to provide legitimacy in the eyes of “secular’ Israelis, most of whom regard state-sponsored Ortodox establishment with suspicion, if not with disgust. Disconnection from the state will also help in an inevitable confrontation with the Haredei establishment that will rightfully regard ‘the supermarket of Judaism’ as a mortal threat. Of course all mechanisms of the democracy should be used (e.g. independent juridical system will help to legitimize and provide equal rights for all the movements).

    Israeli Judaism and Diaspora
    The process of development of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel will undoubtly help the Diaspora. Cross-fertilization of ideas will create new a bond between Israel and Diaspora. Probably this is the way to fight assimilation process threatening to eliminate the whole communities.

    The new bond will also help Israeli Jews. Historically Jews were and should remain more of universalists than tribalists. It is crucial for the Israeli booming high-tech and other branches of economy to be even more open to the world and to feel they have ‘beach-heads’ everywhere.

    The Role of Conservative Movement
    In my humble opinion, the Conservative movement is uniquely positioned to lead this process of pluralization of Judaism in Israel.
    Funnily enough, most of so called ‘secular’ Israelis think that if you are religious, then you should observe ALL the ‘miztvot’ and thus look with suspicion at Reform movement. In reality, they don’t know too much about both Conservatives and Reformists, but instinctively they see ‘halakha’ as one body and are against compromises, even if they themselves do not keep kosher or drive on Saturday.
    On the other hand, most of the ‘secular’ support modern agendas, such as gender equality and freedom of sexual orientation.
    The Conservative Movement provides this exact combination of non-compromising ‘halakha’ and modernity.

    How to Get There
    Of course, it’s much easier said than done. All of what I’ve described above, as well the agenda outlined in your blog, that I fully support, will be extremely difficult to implement. It can be only done based of wide and growing popular support. Israel is a vibrant democracy and popular movement matter.
    In case, you find my approach interesting, I can try and outline few specific steps that can be taken. Just to give an example, the Habad approach seems to me to be very effective. Though, this is a matter of a separate discussion.

    As an outsider, I’d like to apologize again for sharing my thoughts here. Though sometimes things are seen clearer from the outside.

    With my best regards,
    Lev Zaidenberg

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