Tal Grinfas-David of the Centre for Israel Education speaks with educators at Vancouver Talmud Torah last month. (photo from VTT)
Educators at Lower Mainland Jewish day schools had the opportunity to consider the relevance of Israel literacy last month, when Tal Grinfas-David, the Centre for Israel Education’s day school specialist, was in town the week of Feb. 18 to deliver a talk on the subject and work with local teachers and administrators. Her keynote speech, titled Teaching Modern Israel – Challenges and Opportunities, was part of a community professional development day.
The CIE, which is based in Atlanta, Ga., received a grant for a three-year initiative to work with nine Jewish day schools across North America and help them enhance their Israel education efforts. Vancouver Talmud Torah and King David High School are two of the nine schools and Grinfas-David spent a day coaching educators at each of them. She will return for the next two years to reinforce the changes CIE is promoting.
The issue, she said, is that, across North America, many graduates of Jewish day school education don’t have enough Israel literacy to grapple with the world, to justify a strong connection to Israel and to inform their Jewish identity.
“The concept we’re promoting is to turn Israel education into something all teachers can support, not just Jewish studies faculty,” she told the Independent. The desire is there, she added. “The Vancouver community is very supportive and wants to see Israel education boosted and incorporated into different subject areas. But it’s going to be a long-term process.”
No stranger to education, Grinfas-David comes to her role with a PhD in curriculum and instruction and 25 years as an educator in Israel and the United States. Over the next three years, she will move between Jewish day schools in Denver, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Jersey and Vancouver, coaching their educational teams.
“We’re thrilled to have this grant to visit the individual sites and get to know the different schools’ cultures,” she said. “Each school is different and unique, with strengths and challenges, and this grant allows us to customize and tailor our offerings to specific communities.”
The goal of Israel literacy is to graduate Jewish students who understand the relevance of Israel in their lives and feel confident in their knowledge. They need this, she said, because understanding Judaism means understanding it’s not solely a religion.
“It’s also a belonging to a peoplehood, a nation with a Jewish homeland,” she said. “To understand modern Israel today, we have to see it as a continuation of our Jewish history.”
Grinfas-David said she would need three days to address all the ways that Israel literacy counts significantly in the life of a Jew.
“Israel impacts how Jews live in other countries, like the U.S. and Canada, where we are free. Students at our Jewish day schools have never experienced powerlessness or persecution, as they have the good fortune of being born here and now, with many freedoms. But that’s all the more reason to have them understand it was not always like this for Jews.
“Being part of a nation means there is an obligation to support your people, because of your fortune,” she continued. “There’s a calling to engage and to reflect on what Israel means for these students in their lives. Israel literacy is about having a repertoire of primary sources under your belt, so that when students leave the school setting and hear different narratives, they’ll be critical consumers of information, and they’ll know the facts they need. At CEI, our goal is to give them the ability and the opportunity to have the confidence to be critical consumers.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
A survey of Jewish Canadians indicates that we are not a Zionist monolith. This will be news to no one who has enjoyed a family seder or logged onto social media in recent years. However, it is useful to have a fairly comprehensive public opinion survey on the range of issues that tend to most divide us.
For some, the organizations that co-sponsored the survey will lead to outright dismissal. Undertaken by the polling firm EKOS on behalf of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) and (UJPO), the goal of the exercise was no doubt to show considerable support for the positions espoused by these two groups that are routinely critical of Israeli policies.
By and large, though, the methodologies of the survey appear to have been relatively unbiased, and to ignore the findings is to bury our heads in sand.
Almost half (48%) of Jewish Canadians surveyed believe that “accusations of antisemitism are often used to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies.” More than one-third (37%) have a negative opinion of the Israeli government. On the matter of the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, 45% oppose and 42% support the move. Nearly one-third (30%) think that a boycott of Israel is reasonable and 34% also oppose Parliament condemning those who endorse such a boycott. Almost one in three (31%) oppose the military blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The sponsors of the survey see the results as evidence that Jews whose positions are often dismissed as marginal actually represent a large swath of Canadian Jewish opinion.
We quibble with aspects. One question asks: “In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled unanimously that the wall built by the Israeli government on Palestinian territory violates international law. In response, one year later, over 170 Palestinian citizens’ organizations called for a boycott to pressure Israel to abide by international law. Do you consider the Palestinians’ call for such a boycott to be reasonable?” It may be a bit much to ask someone answering a phone at dinnertime to disagree with something called the International Court of Justice and 170 Palestinian organizations. Overall, though, most of the questions were not misleading nor did they have preambles intended to lead the respondents, as did this one. The survey does, nonetheless, reflect a prevailing narrative that Israel has no legitimate security concerns and erects barriers along the West Bank and blockades Gaza just for fun. But that is the playing field we are on.
Whatever criticisms or doubts we might have about the survey should not distract us from the reality it means to deliver. There are serious divisions between Diaspora Jews and the approach of the government of Israel. Ignoring, papering over or stigmatizing these differences of opinion will harm both Jewish cohesion in the Diaspora and crucial support for Israel. As we have said in this space many times over the years, Israel’s leaders must make decisions based on its security needs, not on what makes it easier for Diaspora Jews to be proud Zionists. However, we do Israel and our own community a disservice by isolating and denouncing those who disagree with the positions of our main communal agencies.
An election is approaching in Israel and that could lead to more of the same or to a significant shift in policy – or to some sort of hybrid between the two. Things change quickly, particularly in that part of the world, and what is true in a survey today may not be true in a year or five.
Even if Israeli policies remain largely the same after April’s election, it is probably not a sustainable position for Canadian or other Diaspora Jewish communities to pretend that a (seemingly) growing chorus of dissent is nonexistent, insignificant, misguided or ill-willed. That is a recipe for irrelevance, particularly among younger Jews.
In fairness, the idea that the Jewish “establishment” is a monolith is an unjust characterization. A diversity of opinions exists in our communal organizations and, certainly, in the plethora of traditional media (like this one) and new media (blogs, online publications and social platforms), a million flowers bloom. So, we challenge the premise that our community enforces a strict ideological membership code. But, we definitely could be better at acknowledging the full range of diversity – even if that means arguing and contesting positions, or even shifting our communal narrative. Indeed, that is entirely in keeping with our community’s tradition.
The survey raises questions we rightfully should be addressing.
Grandparents and grandchildren discover their roots in Jerusalem with the G2: Global Intergenerational Initiative. (photo by David Salem / Zoog Productions)
The G2: Global Intergenerational Initiative is a new yearlong program being offered by the Jewish Agency. It helps bring grandparents and grandchildren closer with activities and conversations. It is spearheaded by Jay Weinstein, a rabbi from New Jersey who now lives in Israel.
“I work in the partnership unit, trying to build relationships between Jews around the world and Israelis,” Weinstein told the Independent. “I bring my connections from North America and also am exposed to Israeli communities here … trying to build bridges with Israel and overseas.”
The project stems from findings gleaned from meetings that the Jewish Agency held in a few prominent Jewish communities, which pointed to a lack of programming provided to older adults and a lack of an Israel connection among the young.
“We went to our partners on the ground, saying, ‘Let’s come up with something together’ … versus coming up with the idea ourselves and then trying to sell it or take it somewhere,” said Weinstein. “We wanted to do it in collaboration.
“Much of what we do in the Jewish community is for the younger generation,” he continued, “but, here, you have … people who spent their lives building up the federations, schools and synagogues. They’re usually the ones volunteering and donating, [yet] we’re failing to have something to really offer to them.”
Certainly, grandparents can be a positive influence in creating a Jewish identity in their grandchildren.
“When they’ve done studies asking young adults why they are involved in Jewish life or Jewish programming, what came back involved Jewish grandparents,” said Weinstein. “That’s even truer in interfaith marriage, [where] the role of the Jewish grandparent passing down values to their grandchildren is of even greater importance.”
The G2 initiative brings grandparents and grandchildren together over the course of a year through activities and creative projects.
“It gives grandparents the chance to think about what is important to them, about what they want their grandchildren to know about, how their family narrative makes them unique, and special things they care about,” said Weinstein.
Participating grandkids should be in Grades 5 and 6, preteens old enough to have deeper conversations, while still under the guidance of their parents “and they aren’t yet too cool to be with Grandma and Grandpa to do the activities,” said Weinstein.
“It’s not a text-based study. It’s more experiential,” he said. “And, at the monthly meetings, we give the grandparents and grandchildren things to do on their own time without a facilitator, like a little mesima (activity) or venture to do in the community.”
Each month has a different focus, such as discussing the most important Jewish gem of a place. This particular theme gives grandparents the opportunity to take their grandchildren to one of their favourite places and explain why it is important to them. Then, the grandchildren guide the grandparents to the most important Jewish gem to them, also sharing why it is important. If the grandparents and grandchildren so choose, they can record the visits on a two-minute podcast to share with others.
“Based on the partnership platform, we have communities overseas doing it with communities in Israel,” said Weinstein. “And, over the course of the year, they’ll connect with each other digitally. Sometimes, they’ll be synchronized and do a Zoom call, sometimes unsynchronized. One of the bigger goals of the unit is to connect Jews from around the world to Israel and, on the other hand, to teach and educate Israelis about what Jewish life is like outside of Israel.”
Many larger Jewish communities can run G2 on their own, in-house, connecting with their sister city in Israel, but most communities won’t be able to carry it out on the same scale as that of the Jewish Agency.
“We believe there is power in the global Jewish community,” said Weinstein. “To be part of a worldwide network of people is a wonderful experience. I don’t think, oftentimes, that a fifth or sixth grader in Vancouver is connected with another Jewish fifth or sixth grader in Miami and Sydney … and we believe that is a very powerful experience. We’ve been in touch with the Jewish Federation in Vancouver and they are interested in G2.”
The partnership unit needs a local organization to launch the program in a region.
“In most cases, [the partner] is the federation, as they are our national partner, but, that being said, we’ve designed this program to be brought to any organization,” said Weinstein. “So, if there’s a synagogue that wants to participate in G2 or a JCC, we can work with them.
“I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of interest from communities all around North America and the world. People understand that grandparents and grandchildren have this special and unique bond. When we can build meaningful Jewish experiences around the grandparent and grandchild relationship, it’s just very powerful.”
The yearlong program includes an eight-day visit that the grandparents and grandchildren take to Israel – traveling about the country, learning and meeting their Israeli partners. They also get the opportunity to stay in the homes of their Israeli partners for part of the trip, getting a firsthand glimpse at everyday life in Israel.
While there is a cost for the program, G2 works with the different community partners to subsidize some of that, and is also looking for philanthropic partners.
“We’d love to have a partner to help us bring this around the world and not have a barrier of prices and expenses prohibiting families from participating,” said Weinstein. “We truly believe … sometimes we use the language of Birthright … that it’s a birthright of every grandparent to have meaningful Jewish experiences with their grandchild, including traveling with them to Israel.”
Amid what had been a steady stream of volunteer commitments I had undertaken in the Jewish community, it seems I now have some more free time. I could be pleased by the fact that I am freed from a major board commitment, but I’m not. Because something’s rotten in the state of Diaspora Jewish communal discourse.
Let’s back up. After seven years of dedicated service on the board of a large Jewish organization here in Ottawa, where I helped initiate policies around ecological sustainability, reform the board’s governance and procedures, work on LGBTQ inclusion, and reformulate our mission statement to better reflect the organization’s values, I found myself having risen through the ranks of the board’s executive to the position of vice-chair. All this along with teaching adult education classes at the institution, creating an innovative women’s athletic program there and being a regular user, along with my family, of a variety of programs and services. Normal board succession procedures imply that I would be next in line for chair – a position I had made plain to those in charge that I was willing to take on.
But rumblings over the past half-year suggested that I was potentially radioactive in the minds of some donors. Why? Because of my writings on the subject of Israel. In short, the board’s selection committee made clear that they’d be better off without me.
Readers of my columns know that while I am frequently critical of Israeli policies around the occupation and other anti-democratic moves afoot in Israel, I am squarely in the camp of liberal Zionism. This means that, in addition to criticizing the occupation and pressing Israel to make the necessary conditions to engage in a meaningful peace process, I oppose full-out boycott of Israel leading to the undermining of its core identity as a Jewish state. I have publicly debated anti-Zionists and non-Zionists – both in person and in print – on these issues, and I regularly tout the importance of Israel engagement and Jewish and Hebrew literacy. These are all ideas that I also put forth both in my columns in local Canadian Jewish papers and in international media, in Haaretz, the Forward and, before that, in Open Zion at the Daily Beast. Still, it seems that when it comes to positions of community leadership, none of this is enough to establish one’s loyalty to a tent that is rapidly shrinking.
We’ve heard this all before, of course. Witness the stonewalling reaction Peter Beinart received by the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs when his organizers tried to get him an audience with Hillel on campus during his three-city Canadian tour a couple of years ago. And then there’s the canceling of David Harris-Gershon’s talk at the Jewish community centre in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
It’s by now a truism that the breadth of policy debate among Israelis themselves far outsizes what is evidently permitted within the Diaspora Jewish community. But then, neither do Israeli Jews have to actively work to inculcate Jewish identity, as I frequently have in my writings, including promoting Jewish education, pushing for the active use of Hebrew, examining the value of synagogue affiliation, defending Jewish and Zionist summer camping experiences and, yes, insisting on the value of a Diaspora connection to Israel.
So, I’m left to ask this: what is it, ultimately, that we, as Jewish community volunteers and activists, are being asked to be loyal to? Are we being asked to promote Jewish community vitality, wrestle with ideas around Israeli politics and policies, encourage Jewish literacy, and consider realities that preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character? Or are we being asked to simply support the endless occupation just as we see Israel’s democratic character crumbling before our very eyes, as the country becomes more and more of a pariah state? I think I know the answer. But how I wish it weren’t so.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.
In collaboration with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library, the Jewish Independent will be reprinting a series of book reviews by Robert Matas, formerly with the Globe and Mail. He has chosen My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Speigel & Grau, New York) by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit as the first in the series. My Promised Land has been listed as number one on the Economist’s best books of 2013, is a winner of a National Jewish Book Award and is included on the New York Times’ list of 100 notable books of 2013.
Israel is an incredibly strong country. Its high-tech start-ups spur economic growth while most of the world is trying to sidestep a financial meltdown. Its democratic institutions remain vibrant, while its neighbors disintegrate. Its military, backed up by nuclear power, effectively has stopped any attack on the state over several decades despite virulent opposition to its existence.
Yet the fault lines in Israeli society steadily widen. Internal divisions that threaten the country spread out in all directions. The rumblings of unrest are becoming louder and more frequent, from the occupied territories, the Arab Israeli communities, the ultra-Orthodox enclaves and the non-Ashkenazi underclass.
Ari Shavit, in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, offers a fascinating window into the country at a crucial time in Israel’s history. Based on family diaries, private letters and interviews and discussions with hundreds of Jews and Arabs over a period of five years, Shavit, a leading Israeli journalist and television commentator, has written a book with the potential to change understanding of the seemingly intractable problems confronting Israel.
This book is not for those who believe Israel requires the unquestioning support of Diaspora Jews. With brutal honesty, Shavit describes episodes in Israel’s history that many would like to remain untold, or at least to be discussed only in hushed whispers within the family. But his account of the life stories of numerous people including Aryeh Deri, Yossi Sarid and others who played pivotal roles in the development of the country is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about Israel.
In a nutshell, Shavit concludes that Israel is vulnerable and will remain vulnerable as long as Israeli cities and farms exist where Palestinians once lived. He argues that ending the West Bank occupation will make Israel stronger and is the right thing to do, but evacuating the settlements will not bring peace. The crux of the matter is that all Palestinians who were expelled – not just those in the West Bank – want to return home and will settle for nothing less.
He is pessimistic about the future. Israel can defend itself now, but he anticipates eventually the hand holding the sword must loosen its grip. Eventually, the sword will rust.
“I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick fix solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I have realized that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic.”
Despite his critical eye on events of the past century, it is difficult to label Shavit’s politics. He was an active member of Peace Now and a vocal critic of the settler movement. But he praises Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for confronting Iran. “I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick fix solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict,” he writes. “I have realized that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic.”
Shavit explores 120 years of Zionism through vividly written profiles of numerous people beginning with his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who came to Jaffa on April 15, 1897, on a 12-day trek to explore the land as a home for the Jews. At that time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, populated mostly by Bedouin nomads and Palestinians serfs with no property rights, no self-rule or national identity.
“It’s quite understandable that one would see the land as a no-man’s land,” Shavit writes. Bentwich would have to turn back if he saw the land as occupied, Shavit adds. “But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great-grandfather chooses not to see.”
Israel was settled and continues to be populated by people who do not see others who are right in front of them. The early Zionists bought land, often from absentee landlords, and ignored those who had worked the land for generations. Herzl’s Zionism rejected the use of force. But as the number of Jews escaping European antisemitism, a new breed of Jew arrived.
Shavit describes how kibbutz socialism, with its sense of justice and legitimacy, displaced indigenous Palestinians. Jews who were godless, homeless and, in many cases parentless, colonized the land with a sense of moral superiority. “By working the land with their bare hands and by living in poverty, and undertaking a daring unprecedented social experiment, they refute any charge that they are about to seize a land that is not theirs.”
Tracing the development of the state, he identifies in painful detail the Palestinian villages that were wiped out and replaced with Jewish settlements. Transferring the Arab population became part of mainstream Zionism thinking during the riots of 1937, as Zionists confronted a rival national movement. David Ben-Gurion at that time endorsed the compulsory transfer of population to clear vast territories.
“I do not see anything immoral in it,” Ben-Gurion said. By the time of the War of Independence in 1947/48, Palestinians who did not leave voluntarily were, as a matter of routine, forcibly expelled from their homes and the buildings demolished.
Shavit delves deeply into the sad history of the Lydda Valley, where Jewish settlements began in idealism but evolved into what Shavit describes as a human catastrophe. “Forty-five years after Zionism came into the valley in the name of the homeless, it sends out of the Lydda Valley a column of homeless.”
In the new state’s first decade, Israel was on steroids, absorbing nearly one million new immigrants, creating 250,000 new jobs and building 400 new Israeli villages, 20 new cities and 200,000 new apartments. The new Israelis had little time for Palestinians, the Jewish Diaspora or even survivors of the Holocaust. As it marched toward the future, Israel tried to erase the past. The miracle was based on denial, Shavit writes.
“The denial is astonishing. The fact that 700,000 human beings have lost their homes and their homeland is simply dismissed.”
“Ten-year-old Israel has expunged Palestine from its memory and soul, as if the other people have never existed, as if they were never driven out,” he writes. “The denial is astonishing. The fact that 700,000 human beings have lost their homes and their homeland is simply dismissed.”
Yet the denial was essential. Without it, the success of Zionism would have been impossible. Similar to his great-grandfather, if Israel had acknowledged what had happened, it would not have survived, he writes.
He recounts how the settlements in the West Bank have changed the course of Zionism. They began as a response to a fear of annihilation but evolved into an aggressive movement to dislocate Palestinians and prevent peace agreements. Shavit is convinced the settlements will eventually lead to another war. The settlements are an untenable demographic, political, moral and judicial reality that harms the entire country, he writes. He believes occupation must cease for Israel’s sake, even if peace with Palestinians cannot be reached.
With similar intensity, Shavit offers insight into the Masada myth of martyrdom and reports on how Israel developed nuclear power. He maintains that nuclear deterrence has given Israel decades of peace. He exposes the cracks in Israeli society with thought-provoking portraits of prominent figures from the ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi communities.
Next month, we may get an idea of the shape of a dramatic paradigm shift in Israeli-Diaspora relations. The government of Israel is expected to spend as much as $1.5 billion in the next 20 years on a new initiative to strengthen Jewish identity outside Israel.
The Jerusalem Post reports that working groups are considering programs in seven different areas, primarily targeting Diaspora Jews aged 12 to 35. Ideas being floated include a world Jewish peace corps, Hebrew language courses in public schools, and the expansion of Birthright-style programs to younger Jews and more financial support for Jewish summer camps.
The program, which first made news last summer, seems to be a significant shift away from the traditional Israeli position that the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the state of Israel should logically and inevitably lead to the “negation of the Diaspora.” As Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said last year, “In Israel, we typically view the world as a source of aliyah and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change.”
The Israeli government is apparently prepared to put up $30 million this year, rising to $300 million annually within five years. The initiative has a 20-year timeline.
The potential is enormous. But there are issues to address as the idea comes to fruition. In initial discussions, the issues of intermarriage and assimilation in the Diaspora appear to be significant motivators for the Israeli proponents. Certainly, the creation of more social and programmatic opportunities for young Diaspora Jews to meet one another will increase the possibility that they will find their bashert. However, there has been, at least in certain parts of the Diaspora, an effort to recognize intermarriage and accommodate it, in order to ensure that our communities are inclusive and accepting of diverse families. It would not be a welcome measure if the Israeli government were to initiate public relations campaigns that appear to condemn or stigmatize intermarried families.
There is also the not-insignificant reality that, it could be argued, the Diaspora has more effectively managed relations between Judaism’s religious streams than has Israel. The quasi-governmental role in religious affairs we see in Israel represents a degree of discrimination against the very streams of Judaism that represent a majority of Jews in the Diaspora. There are a great number of things that Israel would do well to export to the Diaspora; relations between religious streams and secular Jews is not among them.
Especially among secular Israelis, Israeli-ness is often considered effectively a successor to Jewishness. The Diaspora experience has nothing to parallel this reality. Israel is founded on Jewish traditions, values and rituals. It follows a Jewish calendar. It observes Jewish holidays. Its citizens – religious, secular, even non-Jewish – are confronted and absorbed every day with a culture that is intrinsically Jewish. In the Diaspora, Jewish people must make a personal effort to engage with their Jewishness. In many instances, the synagogue is the point of connection between Jewish families and their identity. In Israel, belonging to a synagogue can have a very different connotation.
The proponents of this program – in the government of Israel and in the Jewish Agency for Israel – appear to be making tremendous effort to incorporate the interests and needs of Diaspora communities into the planning of the program. There is great reason for optimism that this could be the beginning of a profoundly improved and dramatically more integrated relationship between and among the world’s Jews. If, as early indicators suggest, this program progresses as a mutually supportive undertaking, and not as Israelis telling Diaspora Jews how to run their affairs, it could be a turning point in Jewish life for the 21st century and beyond. Israel has much to teach the Diaspora. And the Diaspora has much to teach Israelis.
Any increase in dialogue and understanding between Jews inside and outside of Israel is a step in the right direction. But neither group should attempt to define for the other the right way to be.