'iEngage' aims to make Israel a Jewish value

The Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute aims to change conversation about Israel from a "crisis narrative" to a Jewish value.

By DANIEL WICENTOWSKI, ISRAEL CAMPUS BEAT REPORTER
March 31, 2012 17:10
4 minute read.
Classroom discussion

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The story of Israel can seem like a story of crisis: Of war and triumph in the face of sweeping destruction, and the unceasing defense against dangers from within and without.

But is it?

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This is question raised by the iEngage project, an effort by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute to turn the conversation about Israel from a "crisis narrative" to one that turns inward -- to the question of Israel's place in Jewish diaspora life; to the question of Zionist identity in the 21st century; and to the age-old question of what being a Jew really means.

"We want to give people a connection through an exploration of ideas, to understand how Israel adds value to being a Jew," said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the executive director of Hillel at UCLA, who is heading iEngage's foray into college campuses.

Seidler-Feller explained that unlike the generation that witnessed Israel fight for its life during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the current generation of Jews is the first to "experience an Israel whose wars were not wars of survival."

The iEngage program doesn't dispute the real crises in Israel, said Seidler Feller. But in an age when Israel is undoubtedly the strongest military presence in the Middle East, he said that the reliance on that narrative is less than compelling.

Israel must be a core aspect of Jewish identity -- not merely a political object of patriotism -- for Jews to find a meaningful discourse with which to engage Israel itself, he said.

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"There's a desperate need to explore notions of what it means to be part of a collective Jewish peoplehood, to talk about the nature of Jewish life and expose people to Jewish sources that emphasize both individualism and community," he said.

iEngage Director Rabbi Julia Andelman said the impetus for the program was the realization that discussions about Israel had become so divisive in many communities that community leaders were afraid to touch the issue at all.

"Israel should be a constituent factor of any rich Jewish life, and we're troubled that it's become such a fractious issue in Jewish communities," she said.

The campus side of iEngage is still in its infant stages, said Andelman, explaining that the choice of Seidler-Feller, an experienced educator and Hillel professional, reflects the Hartman Institute's operational philosophy which focuses on empowering local leaders to affect their own communities.

"[We work] with them to come up with creative alternative program agendas that can start changing the nature of Israel conversation on campuses," she said. "We engage with those who are experienced and part of those populations."

It's this philosophy that makes it hard to gauge exactly how the iEngage project will play out on college campuses next year. At the moment, the project's role is to educate campus leaders; the next step will find those community leaders creating programming tailored to their own campus environments.

While the full implementation of iEngage's campus side is still a year away, there is a bitter challenge in reaching students enmeshed in pro-Israel campus advocacy. Even though the crisis narrative may lack relevance for the Jewish community as a whole, said Hartman Institute Fellow Gil Troy, it is very much alive in universities.

"The fact that academics and professors use the most twisted kind of sloganeering is a deep, deep, deep violation of everything we're supposed to be doing here and what we're supposed to be giving our students," said Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal.

Troy said that iEngage will face a Jewish student body whose connection to Israel has been defined for them and not by them. But a relationship defined only by reaction, he said, isn't a meaningful relationship at all.

"For Zionism to work in the 21st century, it has to be about us, it can't be about them. It can't be about defending Israel from attack," Troy said.

Teaching students to engage in discussions of values and identity isn't simple, admitted Troy. Such a conversation, by definition, must allow for students to explore different opinions of Israel's policies, especially the controversial ones.

Occupation. Refugees. Gaza. Topics that, from an advocate's point of view, are commonly defined by pointed debate and zero sum logic: If I lose, they win. Troy hopes to change that paradigm.

"I believe that we win by ... acknowledging complexity and by making the complex arguments, " Troy said.

"Do we weaken our position in some way? Potentially, but I'm willing to concede that because it’s a deeply, intellectuality credible position."

Complexity doesn't make for powerful catchphrases or vivid posters, but Troy believes that as advocacy adapts and changes, students will be able to hold both of these images of Israel in their minds: The Israel they defend on campus, and the Israel that brings them meaning.

And if iEngage succeeds, he said, that image can be one.

Israel Campus Beat is the premier student-written online publication providing up-to-date reports and insights on the North American campus Israel scene.  Visit http://www.israelcampusbeat.org/subscribe for the latest Israel trends and events on campus.

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