After more than a century since the founding of Zionism, the Jewish political movement continues to wrestle with the future of Israel, a leading scholar said.
Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, discussed his vision for Zionism in the 21st century and the importance of honest conversation between diaspora and Israeli Jews in a lecture Tuesday. The event was sponsored by the Rudnick Endowment.
“The Jewish people need new Zionist dreams,” Eisen said. “2011 is not 1896.”
Israeli Jews should consider diaspora Jews—those living outside Israel—as equally Jewish and not see them as a different group of people, Eisen noted.
“It is my responsibility as the chancellor of [the Jewish Theological Seminary] to narrow the gap between American and Israeli Jews,” he said.
Eisen attributed this divide between the two groups partly to the desire of American Jews to cling onto a myth of Israel, in which Israel is larger than life, he said.
“[Israel] rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust,” he said. “It represents the message, ‘The Jews live.’”
Sixty percent of American Jews have not visited Israel, Eisen noted, which adds to the illusions perpetuated by the myth.
“Why mess up the myth with poverty, environmental pollution and debatable treatment of Arabs?” he said.
Eisen also noted the importance of creating a multicultural Jewish state.
“Israel has a problem thinking about gentiles because to the Israelis, gentiles are the Arabs, the enemy,” he said.
In addition to seeing diaspora Jews as equals, Eisen said future Zionists should develop a broader view of gentiles.
Eisen emphasized the importance of dialogue among Jews around the world. This dialogue is necessary because the fate of Israel affects Judaism as a whole, he said.
The social realities and political movements differ between the two countries.
“Zionism in America has never been the Zionism in Israel,” Eisen said.
There has been a campaign to allow Jews living outside Israel to gain voting rights in the country’s elections, Eisen noted. He added that he personally does not want to vote in the Israeli elections because he is not directly affected by them.
“I don’t want a voice through votes but honest dialogue,” he said.
Free of ongoing hostilities with surrounding countries, American Jews have the responsibility to develop ideas of a Jewish state with Jews and non-Jews, human rights for Arabs and even collective rights for Arab minorities, Eisen said.
Durham resident Mary Joan Mandel, an attendee of Jewish faith, noted the difference between the experience of American Jews and Israel Jewish realities.
“The Israelis are so saturated with Jewish culture, and they use Hebrew so constantly that newspapers don’t have vowels,” she said.
Mandel added that she supports greater conversation between Jews of all backgrounds.
“You can hold the myth in your heart for hope,” she said.
Eisen is the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, serving since 2007. He formally served as the Koshland professor of Jewish culture and religion and chair of the department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.
Among his degrees, Eisen holds a Ph.D. in the history of Jewish thought from Hebrew University and a bachelor’s degree in religious thought from the University of Pennsylvania.
Last May, Eisen also launched a blog titled “Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation,” in conjunction with the Jewish Theological Seminary. The blog features original works by Eisen as well as by leading scholars in the field of Jewish study.
Correction: The event was sponsored by the Rudnick Endowment—not the Center of Jewish Studies and the department of religion at Duke, as stated in a previous version. The Chronicle regrets the error.