Making the Case for Aspirational Advocacy for Israel
Last week, AIPAC held its annual Schusterman Advocacy Institute High School Summit. I accompanied a delegation of inspiring Reform Movement teen leaders who represent the Movement’s regional and national boards to Washington, D.C. for the event.
AIPAC’s leadership development team does an excellent job teaching students about the bipartisan issues that the largest pro-Israel American lobby sees as keeping “Israel’s security as an American priority.” Like their peers – more than 500 students from other Jewish youth movements, day schools, and other community delegations – the Reform teen leaders finished the two days of intense workshops and one day of meetings in the offices of their U.S. representatives feeling more politically astute about Israel as a topic of American concern on the geo-political plane. For AIPAC to do its work with its singular political purpose, it’s all about Israel’s external position as America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East.
But for the Reform teens who are engaging with Judaism as a meaningful life choice, the Israel political advocacy agenda, whether one supports AIPAC or JStreet, does not encompass all aspects of how Israel might be in dialogue with the students’ collective and individual aspirations for a sustainable Jewish future. Alongside critical conversations about Israel’s geo-political security as a matter of international relations, they seek arenas where caring American Jews can delve into Israel matters internal to Israel’s societal well-being.
We teach them that Israel was founded on the assumption that it would be rallying point for such a grand Jewish conversation. The conversation space they seek is one where they can engage in what I call “aspirational advocacy for Israel.” Aspirational advocacy begins with the premise that no country can garner external support if its house is not in order. Looking at the folks who gathered at the High School Summit, this big tent is open to anyone who supports Israel as a democracy.
One of the best parts of last week’s AIPAC gathering is that it brought together a diverse spectrum of Jews. As with many programs, some of the most meaningful encounters happen outside the official program during side conversations in the hotel hallways or while standing in a buffet line. One such interaction epitomizes for me why aspirational-thinking about Israel can’t remained siloed.
An Orthodox day school educator heard me introduce myself as the director of Israel engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. He politely asked if he could pose a controversial question. He proceeded to tell me that during the summer, he sent an email to the Reform Movement, perhaps even to me, to express his disapproval of our movement’s efforts to secure an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall). Inspired by seeing all types of Jews enter the gender-segregated areas set up for worship at the Wall, he wanted to let me know that the Reform Movement was seeking to ruin a place that fosters Jewish unity – most Jews, he opined, are willing to pray according to the status quo for the sake of Jewish peoplehood. Compounding his frustration was the fact that no one answered his email.
I knew that nothing I could say would change his views. Yet, I had a feeling that through dialogue, his frustration might turn into something more constructive. To start, I emphasized that we, too, envision the Kotel area as a site for Jewish unity. Unlike the set-up he cherishes, liberal Jews would like to see the plaza above the worship areas as that peoplehood place. Like him, we want to worship God in the way we find meaningful, which is why liberal Jews in and out of Israel have appealed to the Israeli government to create – with us – an egalitarian area in the Kotel’s southern extension, out of view of the already existing Orthodox space. All Jews could enter the same plaza, celebrating the unity of spirit to be at the same holy site and fulfilling their spiritual needs when they touch the ancient stones in very different spots.
Although our lunchtime conversation ended in agreeing to disagree, we did achieve something. My new friend was happy that someone finally explained the Reform position and that was no small thing for him. During this brief give-and-take, I believe we practiced the first steps of aspirational advocacy. By being present at the same convening, there was an assumption that we both cared about Israel’s future and its internal well-being – it was safe to open up to each other. Aspirational advocacy begins with identifying common core concerns, which in this case were the need for a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood, upholding the centrality of worship in Judaism, and presenting Israel as the ultimate Jewish meeting place.
Leaders can’t do all the difficult aspirational, problem-solving work on their own. In her book, The End of Leadership, Harvard’s Kennedy School professor, Barbara Kellerman, writes: “We need to think of leadership as a creative act – for which leaders and followers both are educated, for which leaders and followers both are prepared over a lifetime of learning.” To be educated toward a creative act is by definition, aspirational. To turn aspiration into problem-solving, we must make space for sharing divergent perspectives on fundamental questions.