Learners, Not Knowers
It’s all so straight forward. That’s the key in any event. Take the complex and unpack it until it becomes something requiring little more than an elevator ride to explain. After all, who has time for a deep dive? It’s all in the turn of a phrase. The political divide. Social unrest. The war in Ukraine. Inflation. You certainly don’t need to know much to know what side you’re on.
Across the Jewish world, there are other such issues. Chief among them perhaps is Israel. For North American Jews, two elements seem to occupy the lion’s share of our attention. Peace and how we feel about the government’s commitment to its pursuit and religion – how some of the country’s ultra-Orthodox deny the legitimacy of those of us who are less observant—or for whom religion itself may be unimportant. Boil these down to a sound bite or two and you can help others figure out what side they’re on.
I suppose if you have a little time, you can delve further, perhaps achieving a deeper and richer understanding. Then, you might be better equipped to interpret for others. That sounds like something leaders should do. Dig in a bit—and see if you can arrive at an approach that would help explain things to people who’ve had less exposure and consider the possibility that the issues are a bit more complicated than simple sound bites might suggest.
That was the plan this week, when newly elected chair of the JCC Association board, David Wax (of San Diego), and I arrived in Israel for eight days of conversations and visits to sites relevant to its history, achievements, challenges, politics, and culture—together with Leah Garber, who heads JCC Association’s Center for Israel Engagement. Our time together has taken us south—to the communities surrounding Gaza, to Makhtesh Ramon (Israel’s Grand Canyon), and to Sde Boker, the kibbutz to which founding father David Ben-Gurion retired from public life. It has taken us north—to the borders with Lebanon and Syria, through the Galilee, and onto the Golan Heights. And we’ve spent significant time in the center of the country, in and around Tel Aviv. It’s been almost a week, so, pending our time in Jerusalem on Sunday, we should have things pretty well figured out, right?
But what to make of it all?
Beautiful and dynamic communities along the border with Gaza, where Michal, who heads the local community center, describes their lives as 99% paradise and 1% hell. The former reflects the small-town feel. The commitment to raising kids away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Caring communities, home to both social and business entrepreneurs. Idyllic villages, but for the occasional Hamas rocket attacks and the need to run for cover with barely 15 seconds’ warning. Across the border, Palestinians, descended from refugees who fled war-torn places during the War of Independence three quarters of a century ago, live lives of poverty and deprivation, trapped under the control of leaders whose interests and aims contrast with and supersede those of their people.
Across the northern Negev, the formerly nomadic Bedouin, have called this part of the Middle East home for centuries. Lots of borders were drawn in the aftermath of World War I, and it was no longer possible to move around as before. So, they live a variation of their former existence—18 family clans now totaling nearly 300,000 people. Adel works in desert tourism and animal husbandry. He’s raising his sons with a commitment to service in the IDF’s tracking unit, a tradition begun by his grandfather. His clan’s commitment to a brighter future as part of the state stands in contrast to other clans that remain resistant to engagement with modern Israel.
Iran’s increasing malign influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon complicates an already difficult security environment, fomenting chaos in countries whose stability is a necessary precursor to progress for their own citizens, for refugees, and for the possibility of greater equanimity across the region.
Israel’s historic government coalition, comprising parties of the left and the right—including, for the first time, an Arab party—all of whom share core interests, while concurrently maintaining widely divergent agendas on a range of other issues, is teetering. Weakened by an aggressive opposition, individual members of the coalition parties seem determined to hold the government hostage to their personal agendas and ambitions, knowing that without them, the government could fall. In a country that experienced four national elections in just two years, there is, once again, a risk of increasing national paralysis.
Throughout our time together and in the myriad conversations in which we’ve engaged, we’ve also talked about the connection between Israel and the North American Jewish community, a connection many see as strained. In an era of sound bite analyses, there is little room for nuance, and for the less interested or less informed, it is easy to make quick judgments about events thousands of miles away—seeing them through the lenses of challenges and dynamics closer to home: The haves and the have nots. Colonialists and those oppressed by them. The religiously fervent and those with little spiritual connection.
The issues are easiest to understand when we keep it simple. But, when it isn’t simple, there’s little alternative but to try to understand more. At a complicated time, in a complicated place, with complicated issues—many of which have roots going back years, decades, even centuries—one can’t really achieve understanding, only better understanding. For leaders, that’s the mandate. During a visit to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, a colleague quoted the late Shimon Peres as having said this: “A leader today has to be much more of a learner than a knower.” And that, I believe, is why we’re here—David, Leah, and I.
Here’s what we do know for sure: For 2,000 years, we Jews had no home of our own. Brief periods of tolerance and even prosperity were had against a backdrop of demonization, expulsion, and slaughter. Today, as we approach the 75th anniversary of the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the modern State of Israel, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, we enjoy remarkable success and heretofore unrivaled achievements both as a sovereign nation and a diaspora community in North America. Irrespective of where we choose to live, our present, as a people, is the product of our shared past. As to the future, we’re in this together. We’ve been around far too long and seen far too much to imagine that sound bites and simplicity are enough.
In this week’s Torah portion, פָּרָשַׁת בְּהַעֲלֹתְך | Beha’alotcha , a lonely Moses is breaking under the burden of leadership responsibility, and his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), guides him to gather around him 70 others, with whom to share the load—a council of partners and allies devoted to their common purpose and to the pursuit of their shared destiny. The challenges and issues with which they were confronted were neither simple nor readily understood, but, together they charted their course and resumed their journey as a people to the Promised Land.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America