What was launched in 2015 as “a conversation among some friends,” in the words of Zack Bodner, has become “a connection around the globe,” the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC told the 1,000-plus people who turned out Sunday in Palo Alto for Z3, the annual day-long exploration of Israel-diaspora relations.
“This started as a conference and has become a movement,” said Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, one of many speakers who touted the growing importance of this yearly gathering in Silicon Valley.
The first three years of the Zionism 3.0 conference — now the Z3 conference, the flagship event of the Z3 Project — came at a time when discussions about Israel in the Bay Area had become dangerously polarized, to the point where some rabbis had stopped talking about Israel from the pulpit, and synagogues had canceled their Israel programming.
“So we thought, let’s try to bring the left and the right together,” Bodner said of the impetus behind that first conference, which tackled a wide range of topics from politics and the peace process to the role of Palestinians within Israeli society.
This year’s fifth annual gathering brought back some of the same luminaries, notably Israeli American writer Yossi Klein Halevi, New York Times oped columnist Bret Stephens and scholar Ruth Calderon of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
But the programming showed at once a more narrow focus on the Israel-diaspora relationship, and a wider range of learning modes, including student-led round-table conversations and on-site podcasting along with the more traditional frontal lectures and panel discussions.
As in previous years, about half the attendees were Israelis, both visiting speakers and expats who live in California. There was also a sprinkling of representatives from JCCs elsewhere in the United States, a dozen of whom stayed on the next day for workshops on how to bring the Z3 model to their cities.
So far, said Bodner, Los Angeles has committed to a conference in January, and St. Louis and Milwaukee have signed up for later in the spring.
That’s what he was hoping for. “The need to talk about Israel is vital, and these JCCs think this will help them do it,” he said.
Many of this year’s sessions grappled with the question of roles: Can American Jews look to Israel for lessons in how Judaism can evolve? Can Israeli Jews abandon their superiority complex and accept American Jews as equal partners in the global Jewish enterprise?
“We have to find a new way to engage,” Bodner said. Accepting our differences and rising above them is key. “We’re talking about unity, not uniformity,” he said.
In her keynote address, recently retired Israeli politician Tzipi Livni pointed out that Israeli and American Jews are good at supporting each other in times of crisis. “But is that enough?” she asked rhetorically. “We need more to connect us — a shared vision.”
There were some jabs at the increasingly Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate and its control over religious status in Israel as one of the key disrupters of the Israel-diaspora relationship. “What does it mean to be the national state of the Jewish people if you’re saying to Jews outside Israel, ‘You’re not part of us?’” said Livni, referring to Israeli religious authority that does not recognize liberal Jewish streams.
But most of the discussions focused on how Israeli and American Jews can find common ground. Are we family? Are we linked by a sense of “peoplehood,” and if so, what does that mean? Should we openly acknowledge our differences, or try to pave them over and present a “united front”?
Speaker after speaker underlined the importance of confronting what divides these two major centers of Jewish life and respecting our very real differences even as we work together toward some shared vision of a Jewish future.
“It’s important to see Israel and the diaspora as two different forms of Jewish life,” said Ruth Gavison, human rights professor emerita of the law faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It is indeed critical for Jews in Israel to acknowledge the importance and vitality of Jewish communities elsewhere. Those Israeli Jews who think they are the only authentic Jews are misunderstanding the message of Zionism.”
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, pointed out that the current period of division between Israel and American Jewry is the norm rather than a deviation from some idealized past. The global Jewish solidarity around Israel in the mid-20th century was “unique in our history,” he said.
“The disputes that divide us are reflective of deep and essential characteristics of what it means to be Jewish,” he said, pointing to the biblical story of Abraham, who arrives in Canaan, pronounces it good, and then leaves for Egypt a few verses later.
“We are at once attached to the land, and looking for an alternative,” he said.