"Stop referring to us as Diaspora Jews,” a leading Israel educator living overseas admonished us. “That’s not how we see ourselves.

We’re Jews living in North America, like you are Jews living in Israel.”

“It’s not the same,” replied an Israeli.

“Calling where you live ‘the Diaspora’ isn’t a put-down; it’s simply an expression of the special place that the Land of Israel has always held in Jewish tradition.

If Israel is our homeland then there has to be terminology that distinguishes between where I live and where you live that is different from the way in which we distinguish between Jewish life in Canada and Argentina. Otherwise we’re denying the unique claim that the land of our forebears has on us.

Or the claim that we have on it. How can you explain to your students, never mind to the rest of the world, why we have any right whatsoever to this sliver of territory if you don’t believe our relationship to it is unlike our relationship to any other country where Jews live?” The ancient debate between the Jews of the Land of Israel and those of Babylonia revived. Is Israel at the center of Jewish life or just another place where Jews live? Is “Next year in Jerusalem” a promise or a prayer? Does peoplehood, territory or Torah define what we are all about? A few of these questions were raised at a recent conference on Israel education in Chicago that brought together some 90 educators from Israel and North America, comprising both veteran practitioners and a younger generation of graduate students and educational entrepreneurs.

Organized by the World Zionist Organization and the iCenter (a hub of Israel education in North America) and sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Kelman Center for Jewish Education of Tel Aviv University, the purpose of the gathering was to initiate a far-reaching dialogue on the role of Israel in the development of Jewish identity. And to challenge one another to think anew about the relationship between us and between Israel and Jews around the world.

“I don’t see Israel as the state of the Jewish people today,” ventures one of the young Americans. “Israel doesn’t want me. It won’t let me practice the kind of Judaism I believe in,” she explained, referring to a series of unpleasant experiences she had as a Reform Jew during an extended period of study in Jerusalem. Then a moment of hesitation. “It’s not that I don’t love Israel,” she continues, “it’s just that it's easier for me to love it from a distance.”

“The ultimate love-hate relationship,” interjects one of the next-generation Israelis. “It’s not simple for me either.

Because I care so much, I’m really bothered by all the things that are wrong with the society. That’s why I've gotten involved the way I have. And why I need you to be involved too. The genuine pluralism you have here, we need to figure out how to make it work back home.”

“You guys are amazing,” remarks one of the older participants, referring to the impressive array of initiatives undertaken by the accomplished delegation of Israeli 20- and 30-somethings. “You’re so involved. Do you represent your generation or are you the exception?” The Israelis exchange glances for a moment, not sure what to say.

“Not everyone cares,” one of them finally volunteers.

“Of course not,” says another, “but more and more of our peers are stepping out and saying this is not the society we want and finding ways to fix it.”

“It’s called Zionism,” says one of their peers, without hesitation. “A commitment to building something special. It’s not just about supporting a Jewish state or even about loving the country, but a dedication to really turning it into a light unto the nations.”

THE SAME idealism surfaced in another encounter. The young Israelis are asked what concerns they wake up with in the morning. Separately, the North Americans are asked what they think the Israelis will say. The Israelis talked about social and economic challenges.

The North Americans were surprised; they were sure their counterparts would say “security.”

“I always think of Israel as a place that needs to be defended,” explains one of them. “It’s hard for me to imagine you aren’t preoccupied with the physical threats you are facing.”

“Sure, there’s always the tension,” explains one of the Israeli participants, “but it’s kind of more like background noise. I’d love to be able to get rid of it, to think that my kids might actually grow up without it. In the meantime, though, I’m not going to let my enemies dictate my agenda. There are things I can do something about and things that I can’t. And that’s what we need to teach towards: engaging young Jews in shaping Israeli society.”

Still, the question hovers in the air.

“Is that Zionism or social activism? Is what you are doing in Israel any different than what I am doing here? Why get stuck on the terminology?” One answer comes in the form of a reflection on the conversation offered by an educator who just returned to Israel after an extended sojourn abroad. “It was an interesting experience, starting to use the ‘Z-word’ again after many years of abstinence. I am a Zionist. Yes, I will use the word. Just like I am a feminist. Those words are important. They imply a commitment to some ideologically based values.

And I believe in them. There is something about the term ‘Zionism’ rather than ‘pro-Israel’ that also implies an active, ongoing co-creation of the Jewish State, that I personally want to be involved with. But,” she continued, “that is the personal stuff. As an educator, I have to ask other questions, about whether the word ‘Zionism’ is helpful to us in reaching our broader educational goals. And that is where I am not sure. But at the very least I am certainly challenged, for the first time in years, to think again.”

Thinking again is always a good idea.

For those of us living in Israel, it is important that we ask “why” from time to time. If we can’t understand it ourselves, we can’t expect to be able to explain it to others. Is it because we believe Israel is central to Jewish life, or because it is comfortable here? If the latter, should it become uncomfortable, does that mean we get up and leave? Or are we here for some higher purpose? In which case we had better be able to explain that as well.

Or maybe it is because we believe Israel must exist, we feel the obligation to ensure that existence and consider being here the ultimate way of doing that.

Judaism, after all, has always been about fulfilling obligations. Then we’d best be able to explain why Israel needs to exist to those who are no longer so sure, and how fulfilling obligations can also be selffulfilling in an age when self-fulfillment is generally about “me” and not about the collective.

For those living abroad, there are other questions. If Israel is not the center, why do I care any more about it than I do about any other Jewish community around the world? Why am I drawn to it? Why am I bothered by criticism of it? Why do I feel pride in every Israeli achievement and shame in each of its missteps? Is my love for Israel conditional? Will I count myself among its supporters only if I can abide its government and its policies? Or is there something deeper? Am I an outside observer, judging from afar, or an active stakeholder, somehow responsible for what transpires across the ocean? Is my connection to the land, the state or the people of Israel? For one of the young participants, the answers are less important than the conversation itself. “I’ve been involved in bringing Israelis and American Jews together before, but I never could really articulate why,” she says at the end of the conference. “Now I know. This is the first time in my life I feel complete. This is my calling.”

I think what she’s saying is that as long as we keep talking, we are one. In which case, the gathering will have served its purpose.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a veteran Israel educator and a key organizer of the conference.

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