It is symposium season in Jerusalem these days – and hero season in Israel. Every June I am overwhelmed by conferences, often balancing two per week, as academics and activists visit Israel before the summer – and summer heat – really begin. As my daily schedule fills up, I enjoy reading about the annual conferring by Israel’s universities of honorary doctorates to intellectual and activist heroes who are worthy role models to the graduating students. All this activity fulfills Theodor Herzl’s vision in his 1902 utopian novel Altneuland, Old-New Land, of a Jewish state that would be a center of enlightenment, insisting “we are duty bound to increase beauty and wisdom upon the earth until our last breath.” Herzl’s characters appreciated “the things that have made us great … liberality, tolerance, love of humanity,” announcing “Only then is Zion truly Zion.” Alas, today, pursuing wisdom and beauty, in the Jewish world and beyond, is often a bold, countercultural act.
One of last week’s conferences was at Hebrew University, for academics researching Birthright Israel sociologically, demographically, anthropologically. Yossi Beilin recalled proposing the idea in the 1990s, when demographers estimated the American Jewish intermarriage rate at 50 percent. Yet, although Birthright is a successful program conceived in response to American Jewish failure on this front, it succeeds by not being defined by that failure. This out-of-the-box brainstorm became perhaps today’s most successful mass Jewish identity-building program, with more than 300,000 participants in 13 years, by being proactive and empowering not reactive and defensive. Its genius lies in inviting each participant – including the nearly 50,000 Israeli partners so far – to navigate their own personal Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trip.
Last week, many also celebrated the Lynn and Charles Schusterman Foundation’s 25thanniversary at a lavish ROI – Return on Investment – young “activists’ and change makers’” organization event at the Israel Museum. The ROI community, a network spanning fifty countries, is one of many happy Birthright spinoffs, reflecting the Birthright insight that the community was neglecting Jewish 20-somethings, just as they made critical personal decisions that would shape the Jewish communal future. ROI is yet another Schusterman-sponsored dynamic, cutting-edge Jewish identity projects, reflecting the Schusterman insight that “Jewish lives today are born of inspiration, not obligation.” At the Israel Museum, Lynn Schusterman recalled that she and her late husband “Charlie” had to borrow $500 to support Israel during the 1967 War. She used that story – and her creative, visionary approach to philanthropy -- to inspire ROI activists to follow their dreams, echoing Herzl’s message that “all our deeds are only dreams at first.”
This week, I am attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual philosophy conference, which is honoring the memory of its recently departed founder, Rabbi David Hartman. In asking, “Truth, Principle and Compromise: Can They Coexist?” we are struggling with one of his central concerns, while delighting in his delight in paradox. Hartman taught that the Zionist revolution, which challenged Jews to fulfill our ethical tradition while exercising power not just pontificating, entails taking responsibility for our actions and “examining how we balance justice with compassion, security with human dignity, power with vulnerability.”
A regular at the conference, Professor Michael Walzer, was honored Sunday by Hebrew University with an honorary doctorate. The author of the classic text Just and Unjust War, Walzer is a lifelong, outspoken, courageous leftwing Zionist – criticizing Israeli policies toward Palestinians while criticizing the totalitarian Left’s blindness toward Palestinian extremism. “Even the oppressed have obligations, and surely the first among these is not to murder innocent people,” he has argued. Appalled by terrorism and its “progressive” enablers, Walzer has spearheaded the fight for what he calls a “Decent Left” as part of “a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics.”
Meanwhile, last week, a winner of Tel Aviv University’s million-dollar Dan David Prize, Leon Wieseltier, continued championing the humanities in an increasingly soulless world. “The technological mentality…. ,” he warned at Brandeis University’s recent commencement, “instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.” Wieseltier challenged the graduates: “Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful.”
Wieseltier wisely celebrates humanists as the “counterculture.” Birthright and ROI are countercultural organizations because they emphasize community, tradition and searches for meaning in our hyper-individualist, me-me-me, my-my-my, now-now-now, utilitarian, super-mechanized world. The Schustermans’ magnanimity, David Hartman’s teachings, Michael Walzer’s iconoclasm, and Leon Wieseltier’s humanism are constructively subversive, challenging the status quo, valuing activism over passivity, can-doism over defeatism, idealism over materialism, altruism over selfishness, while demonstrating that ideas matter.
In Altneuland, Herzl envisioned a 40-person academy of thinkers, a “Jewish Legion of Honor” of “meritorious persons who work for the good of humanity.” Such an academy may not exist but the Jewish world – and Jerusalem today – are filled today with worthy individuals approaching Israel as a living laboratory, helping humanity by steeping us in our particular values, building out from Herzl’s insight that every people needs a home.
These days, my countercultural institutions and subversive heroes are making Israel feel like Altneuland in a cleaner, newly-renovated Jerusalem, even as the roar of Formula One cars and the usual headlines suggest more materialistic realities and ongoing headaches. A great conference talk, a true intellectual hero, acknowledges reality but subverts it, pushing further, combining what Herzl called “poetry” and “instruction.” We need thinkers and doers, revitalizing Judaism, reforming Israel, transforming Zionism, and thus helping save the world – while also appreciating the miracle Israel already is.
Gil Troy is a professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem, His latest book,Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!