Gidi Grinstein believes that the arc of world history has finally bent toward the wellbeing and prosperity of the Jewish people.

An Israeli entrepreneur and founder of the Reut Group, a research and leadership nonprofit, Grinstein said Jews have “shifted from powerlessness to superpower.” At the same time, he warned that a crisis imperils the Israel-Diaspora relationship. While Israelis often exhibit arrogance and disdain toward Jews living outside their nation, Diaspora Jewry has become increasingly alienated and disillusioned with Israel, he said.

“We’re drifting apart,” Grinstein told more than 250 people Nov. 13 at “Israel Today: Beyond the Headlines,” the inaugural event of The Associated’s Insight Israel Forum. “This crisis affects all of us as a people, and that is the backdrop for this evening. We want to craft the next chapter of Jewish history.”

The forum is an Associated initiative that strives to provide opportunities for local Jewish leadership to expand and enhance its knowledge base and advocacy of Israel. Through a series of lectures, events, circle conversations and online learning programs called PODS, or Personal Opinion Dialogue Seminars, the forum aspires to facilitate thought-provoking and honest discussions about Israel in a civil context over the next year.

“Israel is 71 years young, and it’s a work-in-progress. Israel is nuanced and complex,” Associated President Marc B. Terrill said at the inaugural event at The Suburban Club in Pikesville. “Why did The Associated take this on? We’ve done a fabulous job in Baltimore in Israel advocacy, but not so much with Israel education.”

Terrill said many Jews are still unfamiliar with such common phrases regarding Israel as “the Green Line,” “a two-state solution,” “Intifada” and “BDS,” referring to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

“We all need a baseline of knowledge and to hear other perspectives, to understand all of the nuances,” he said. “This is the beginning of the journey, and my hope is it will be done with civility and understanding and compassion. We can’t take anything for granted and have to lead.”

That sentiment was echoed by Debra S. Weinberg, The Associated’s chair of the board. “Dialogue is a sacred activity, stretching back thousands of years,” she said. “When people explore disagreements, they come closer to the truth. The Israel Forum was created to bridge the divide. Hopefully, each of us will hear a different viewpoint tonight and consider one that’s not our own.”

Israeli entrepreneur Gidi Grinstein served as moderator of the panel discussion. (Photo courtesy of The Associated)

During the 75-minute forum moderated by Grinstein, panelists offered their often disparate and diverging viewpoints on Israel’s geo-political situation, as well as on relations between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry.

Panelists included Tehila Friedman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Avi Melamed of Inside the Middle East, a nonprofit promoting critical thinking about the region; Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer for Tablet magazine; and Jonathan S. Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate.

“We are a dynamic people of innovation and tradition,” Grinstein said. “We face unprecedented challenges, but we do so with the words and wisdom of the Tanach [the Hebrew Bible], Herzl, Ben-Gurion and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The concept of a Jewish people celebrating our shared legacy and destiny is our biggest asset.”

Stock Options and Myths

Tehila Friedman suggested that Diaspora Jews should think of themselves as stockholders in Israel.

“You hold shares and options,” she said. “People are almost afraid to speak about Israel, that it’s a painful subject. What I am afraid of is indifference. We are family, and families are complicated. But families shouldn’t be afraid that things could get complicated. Remember, Israeli society is made up of different tribes and groups, but we are not our government just like you are not your government. We need to have a dialogue.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs called the notion that young Jews are running away from Judaism and the Jewish community “a myth.”

“They are looking for ways to engage in non-traditional ways and make Judaism relevant to the world around them,” she said. “People are desperate for Jewish meaning and learning to apply those values to Israel and build a just world.

“Some of us look at Israel as a place with a crumbling democracy, inequality and the occupation of five million people,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “We should feel comfortable saying we have to have a two-state solution and democracy in Israel before we invest billions of dollars. … People on the progressive side are often criticized for being critical of Israel. Meanwhile, [affluent Jews] want to build an Israel that they want.”

Avi Melamed warned listeners not to view Israel and the Middle East conflict with rose-colored glasses. Instead of observing Israel through the prism of human rights and tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, he said American Jews need to view the country with the “skills and tools to be critical thinkers and better consumers of information, and replace basic assumptions. American Jews need to create a new platform for discussions and really understand the complexities that Israel is facing.”

When considering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yair Rosenberg called on American Jews to contemplate what both sides endure. Both narratives are accurate in their own way and deserving of empathy, he said.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs: “People on the progressive side are often criticized for being critical of Israel. Meanwhile, [affluent Jews] want to build an Israel that they want.” (Photo provided by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights)

“I always try to remember both sides and expand my understanding of the humanity, to understand the situation better,” Rosenberg said.

Jonathan Tobin said he disagrees with the concept that Israel and Diaspora Jewry are one people, or even that American Jews are just one people.

“We all live in silos, in a bifurcated culture,” he said. “We tend to ’un-friend’ anything or anyone that violates our preexisting values and preconditions. We’ve lost the ability to simply listen to each other. [American Jews] have exported a lot of our blue state/red state division to Israel.

“But the things that unite us are stronger than what divide us,” Tobin said. “We need to try to relearn the ability to listen to each other. If you do that, we’d make a better America and world and Jewish community, and we’d understand we’re all one people that stands for Israel.”

‘We Shouldn’t Be Shut Down’

During the question-and-answer session with the audience, Tobin characterized anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.

“The BDS movement is a form of anti-Semitism because it’s about silencing Jews and that there should not be an Israel at all,” he said. “It’s really aimed at American Jews.”

Meanwhile, Melamed took issue with the concept of a two-state solution and said until the Iranian government’s quest for hegemony in the Middle East is stopped, a cessation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible.

While insisting that a two-state solution is still possible, Rabbi Jacobs argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom in the Jewish community, not everyone involved in the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She said she believes BDS is a tactic in attempting to curtail Israel’s “growing” occupation of the West Bank, as well as trying to compel Israel to reach an accord with the Palestinians.

“The best way to fight BDS is to have an Israel that protects Israelis and Palestinians,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “We all have to learn more about what’s going on in Israel. Go out of your comfort zone and talk to people and listen to different perspectives. We have a right to speak about what’s happening in Israel, and we shouldn’t be shut down.”

Tobin also advocated that audience members listen to a plethora of voices regarding Israel and the Middle East.

“We have to make an effort to hear each other’s narratives,” he said. “This is your opportunity in Baltimore to change that. Do it with humility and realistically. Start here with this effort to reach out and listen and engage.”

For information about the Insight Israel Forum, visit associated.org/israelpods.

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