Israel, Politics

A Plea For Engagement: Listening for the Prophetic

This is a guest post by Drew Cohen, J Street U’s staff co-organizer in Jerusalem, and in his final year of the Pardes Educators Program.
J Street“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her in righteousness.” — Isaiah, 1:27
Three years ago I moved to Jerusalem. I grew up as an involved member of the Reform movement in Connecticut, spent my college and post-college years working in Jewish education in greater Boston, and married another Jewish educator with a deep commitment to Israel. I moved, in part, so that when asked what I thought about Israel, I would have an educated response. I moved to engage my Judaism more deeply. I moved to live in the place where our prophets, my religious role models, preached the Divine call for justice. And I moved because, as a Jewish educator, I realized that I could only encourage my students to develop a relationship to Israel if I myself was deeply connected to the land and its peoples.
Over the last three years I have come to feel a commitment to and responsibility for this place I could not have imagined. While that commitment has grown as a result of various factors, among them is the relationships I have built with Israelis and Palestinians working to create a more democratic future for their respective peoples, a future where a Jewish, democratic Israel can exist in peace and security, and where both Jews and Palestinians can determine their own destiny.
I now work with J Street U to engage American students studying in Israel with the diversity and vitality of the community of activists, politicians, jurists and journalists that I have come to find so inspiring. Unfortunately, these voices are too often absent from the conversation back home – a situation that serves neither the interests of the American Jewish community or of Israel itself. The many men and women working in Israel to ensure the nation lives up to the values enshrined in its declaration of independence — a nation of “freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel” – provide one of the most powerful resources available for those of us committed to an ongoing relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
This year, as a student in the Pardes Educators Program, I’ve been reflecting on that line from the declaration through my study of the book of Isaiah. I hear echoes of the prophet’s words all around me. I hear them in the calls of young Israeli activists who speak out against home evictions in East Jerusalem. And I hear them in the words of Dr. Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor, arguing against extremist (and according to him, inaccurate) readings of the Koran being taught in Palestinian schools.
The problem our prophets faced was that no one wanted to listen – it’s too easy to fall into a routine, to just go about our lives, performing empty rituals, ignoring the suffering and injustice around us. I’ve watched three years of students pass through this city – the vast majority of them falling into their routine, sitting inside and studying, and neither taking the time to learn about the reality outside the walls of the beit midrash (house of study) nor paying heed to those prophetic echoes coming from the societies around them. For some, intense study of Jewish text is what they came to Israel to do, and they aren’t interested in “politics.” Others, who have taken some time to travel and learn, have expressed to me a frustration that the connection between the texts we’re studying and the world around us goes unheeded, out of a fear of opening up an uncomfortable discussion.
The trouble is that this fear is self-fulfilling. This kind of willful avoidance does not serve me, my community, or my future students.
We often hear that my generation is far “less connected” to Israel than our parents and grandparents. But we make a serious mistake in romanticizing Israel, in holding it up as a nation above reproach and making allegiance to it contingent upon a certain willful blindness or at least muteness to the realities of the unsustainable situation in which Israel now finds itself. Such notions do not encourage the kind of responsibility and connection those of us who care deeply for this place hope to see in the coming generations. My generation finds such an unrealistic picture alienating, and we have been ill equipped to reconcile what we have been taught with the realities, complexities and challenges of this beautiful and fraught land.
It is from a desire to encourage American Jews to engage with this reality and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for it that my wife and I chose to work with J Street U here in Jerusalem, creating programs and tours to help American Jews studying in Israel learn about the realities and challenges facing this country, and to introduce them to Israelis and Palestinians who are fighting for a sustainable future for their peoples and their nations. While J Street in the US lobbies for American leadership to bring about a two state solution, in Jerusalem we ask American students studying here to engage – to listen and learn, so that they can serve the Jewish community, and serve Israel, better upon their return to the US.
Throughout my Jewish education, I was repeatedly taught to reflect upon Hillel’s famous three questions.
“If I am not for myself, who am I?”
If I do not work for a more inclusive Jewish community, one where we can have honest, open and respectful conversations about the most difficult issues, I will have only myself to blame for my own alienation, and that of a growing number of young Jews.
“If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Just as I want to see an Israel which reflects those values instilled in me by my teachers, and enshrined in Israel’s own declaration of Independence, so too I want to encourage those Israelis and Palestinians working for those values, and enable American Jews to hear and spread their messages.
“If not now, when?”
We have been speaking about peace for so long we can fail to appreciate the profound cost of failure. I owe it to my Israeli and Palestinian friends to see to it that they have a brighter, safer future. I owe it to my past and future students to work for an expanded conversation in the Jewish community before the charged discussion about Israel and Palestine alienates any more young Jews and jeopardizes Israel’s own future. I also owe it to Isaiah.

12 thoughts on “A Plea For Engagement: Listening for the Prophetic

  1. Chazak U’baruch Drew. We all have a responsibility to make Israel a place we can be proud of. It is difficult to acknowledge that so many Jews today have washed their hands of Israel. Thank you for being not only a good dugma (example) but a leader to young Jews in helping them acknowledge and face up to the complicated realities embedded in the continuing story of our homeland. May your work continue to inspire others and may you be able to see some of the fruits of this labor.

  2. There are particular kinds of narratives in the world. Tropes if you will. One is the ‘I used to be X but now I’m Y.’ This isn’t that.
    It’s the ‘I took a journey X years ago to learn about Y. Hear of my heartfelt discoveries so they might influence your path as well.’
    What I absolutely hate about this particular activist trope, is that it comes from a place of defensiveness, and strengthens that tendency. Do you think right wingers need a three year journey to say that all of Eretz Israel belongs to the Jewish people, eternally? Are you suggesting that personal witnessing is a precondition of strong opinions on the topic? Or that knowledge of Israel can only be acquired experientally?
    Imagine if that were the case for Darfur. Or South Africa. Or Bosnia.
    I’m all about lowering the bar for effective engagement – not raising it.
    (That said, you go, great, be active, hooray.)

  3. Drew, thanks for writing this piece about your relationship to Israel, especially since the right-wing exploded with deliberate mischaracterizations of you since you took up this role. Welcome to being a public face of the Jewish pro-peace, pro-Israel movement! I for one, am honored to work beside you.

  4. R. Adin Steinsaltz
    “When you learn Bible year after year, everybody becomes a minor prophet. And that is the way people in Israel are talking. They are not discussing things, they are telling you what the truth is. It is very hard when you have prophets shouting at each other; they can’t get anywhere,” he said.
    “Being a prophet is a one-sided thing. But learning Talmud is learning a world of discussion, of dialectics. If people would be trained in dealing with matters in a dialectical way, with two or three opinions, and the Talmud is in so many cases not finished, it leaves an argument afloat – this is the kind of training for seeing and perceiving a different world.
    “I’m surely not against the prophets, I’m really very much for them, and not only because of theological reasons. I’m just saying that it’s a matter of being one-sided.”

  5. Victory- thanks for that awesome quote of Rav Steinzalt- reflecting on the Gemara’s decision “Chacham adif m’navi” A sage is preferable to a prophet’… where is that from?
    Jew Guevera— not to sound like a birthright ad- but “experiencing Israel” is a little different standard for jews engaging our issues than is visiting dar fur or such…no?.
    not that people “have no right to act when they haven’t even….”
    I think Drew (it’s been a while since we got to hang, too) is pointing out a bright source of hope and encouragement that runs counter to the media and perceptions of this land. There is an incredible diversity of passionate people here expressing all kinds of visions and dedication to a future, not some monolithic Zionist entity squashing argument. That in itself is a crucial message for the larger world to see.
    The gap that exists between global opinions about israel/palestine and the reality that people on the ground doing work here is tremendous- and kol hakavod to Drew for seeking to connect those worlds…

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