Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC, speaks at the opening session of the Zionism 3.0 conference, Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)
Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC, speaks at the opening session of the Zionism 3.0 conference, Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)

Jew vs. Jew at Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto

The conflicted relationship between American Jews and Israel was the focus of a global therapy session at Zionism 3.0 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, where speakers also expressed fears about the future of democracy in the United States and Israel.

Pessimism was the predominant emotion at the third annual examination of early 21st century Zionism. One participant, a representative of the Orthodox in Israel, even lashed out at U.S. Jews and said it isn’t critical for the State of Israel to have the support of American Jewry.

There were a couple of heated exchanges between speakers and some groans from the sold-out audience of 400, but the 6½-hour conference on Oct. 15 met its goal of presenting both sides of issues facing the world’s two largest Jewish populations. The event also was live-streamed so people in Israel, and elsewhere, could watch.

“This conference is in many ways a prayer,” said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute. “It’s a prayer that North American Jews won’t walk away despite the fact that Israel insults you every single day, that you’ll stay long enough to fight for the Israel you want.”

The event featured panel discussions on the strength of democracy in both countries and on democracy and the role of media. It also had breakout sessions on subjects ranging from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel to the constitutional balancing act between free speech and hate speech.

Zack Bodner, chief executive of the Palo Alto JCC, opened the program by explaining that Zionism 1.0 started in the 1890s and ran until 1948, when the State of Israel was created, and that Zionism 2.0 extended from 1948 to the beginning of this century.

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The crowd at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto listens to a keynote address from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Oct. 15, 2017 (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)

Hartman said the first two versions of Zionism were about saving European Jewry and building a viable Israeli state. Little attention was paid to democracy, he said, because Zionists assumed democratic ideals were ingrained in the nation’s founding.

But Hartman said the growth of religious communities in Israel, as well as a focus on security that often sacrifices issues of human rights, has forced modern-day Zionism to deal with issues of democracy in a nation where religion often dictates government policy. This, in turn, has led to divisions within Israeli society as well as a chasm with a diaspora whose goals and values don’t always align with what is going on in Israel.

“What does a Jewish democracy mean?” Hartman asked. “The challenge of Zionism 3.0 is what does it mean to have a state not just where there are multiple Jews, but there also are multiple Judaisms. How do multiple Judaisms live side by side?”

Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Jewish Media Resources organization that represents Orthodox communities in Israel, blamed American Jews for the schism between Israel and the diaspora. He said U.S. Jews supported the Obama administration instead of Israel on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal.

“Israelis feel that on an issue which was of existential significance to us, you went AWOL. You put your opinions above those of us who are in the line of fire of Iranian missiles,” Rosenblum said. “Mainstream Americans Jews just don’t care about us anymore. They’ve lost interest in us.”

Fellow panelist Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shook his head often when Rosenblum spoke and called him “self-righteous” at one point. Several audience members groaned at Rosenblum’s comments and applauded when he was rebuffed by Jacobs or Hartman.

“For Zionism 3.0, we have to figure out how the two largest Jewish populations on this planet can depend on each other,” the New York-based Jacobs said. “In Zionism 3.0, we have not only a right but an obligation to be a part not only of the Judaism but of the democracy that is the modern state of Israel.”

Reform movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaking at Zionism 3.0 in Palo Alto, Oct. 15, 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Zionism 3.0)
Reform movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaking at Zionism 3.0 in Palo Alto, Oct. 15, 2017 (Photo/Michelle Shabtai)

Fears that democracy is at risk in both the U.S. and Israel pervaded the conference, with speakers finding plenty of people and forces to blame.

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, pointed to the “inferior quality of national leadership in both countries” as well as globalization and technological advances such as “the internet and the velocity at which bad information travels.”

“Anti-democratic forces in both countries are working assiduously to undermine democratic rule” by attacking legislative oversight, the judiciary, the free press, and the separation of church and state, Goldberg added.

Democracy studies scholar Larry Diamond of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said the U.S. electoral system has been undermined by gerrymandering and a polarized population, and that extremism on both the right and left has imperiled democracy in Israel, the U.S. and other nations.

Diamond also was critical of Rosenblum’s comment that American Jewish support is not critical for Israel.

“As a political scientist and as a Jew who cares deeply about the future of Israel, I think that is not a prudent thing to say,” Diamond said. “I worry greatly for the future of Israel if we lose that [connection]. And this posture is not in the long run, or the medium run, going to help us here in the United States.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.