Amid all the discussion and debate these days over how to talk about Israel publicly without making things worse — that is, exacerbating the divide between left and right — there is one group that has a proven track record of framing tough issues in a sophisticated, nuanced and creative way to foster substantive dialogue.
Still little known, Makom was launched six years ago by the Jewish Agency for Israel, with offices in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, and calls itself “the place for compelling Israel education.” (Makom is Hebrew for “place.”)
The two-actor interactive workshop it put on last November in Denver at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America still resonates with me — I wrote about it at the time (“Just Who’s Inside The ‘Big Tent’”? Nov. 11). That’s because the program allowed audience members to react to a 25-minute performance that explored the practical challenges Jewish communal leaders face in determining the boundaries of inclusivity.
The play focused on the chief executive of a Jewish federation learning that the local Jewish community center’s theater was about to stage a show highlighting the struggles of a Palestinian family. The exec first confronts the angry, anti-Zionist Jewish playwright, and then in subsequent scenes, the theater’s art director, who defends the artistic merits of the play and the right to present it, and a major donor committed to ending her support for the federation for allowing the play to be shown.
Robbie Gringras, artist in residence at Makom, introduced the play, noting that it was based on actual experiences. He called it “fictional realism,” and attendees familiar with similar controversies in San Francisco, New York and Washington nodded their heads.
After the performance, the audience was invited to offer opinions on the characters’ actions and dialogue. Several scenes were then replayed, incorporating audience comments, and then members of the audience were invited to come up and replace the actors and put their thoughts into action.
As I noted at the time, it was a fresh and thought-provoking session, offering no easy answers but encouraging the notion that one can be loyal to and critical of Israel at the same time.
Yonatan (Jonny) Ariel, executive director of Makom, acknowledges that “critical loyalty is not exactly a flourishing notion these days,” making his work all the more important. He was in New York recently and explained that he and his colleagues have put on variations of the play I saw at the GA in communities around the diaspora, and have led seminars with thousands of Jewish educators, based on the premise that Israel must be taught in a new way for a new generation.
“We have to re-imagine the place of Israel in Jewish life” in a more sophisticated way. “It’s not just about heroes and victims,” he says, and calls for “redesigning an Israel that is more nourishing, more vulnerable and complex.”
That means confronting and struggling with difficult issues like religious-state tensions, and the parameters of democracy and religious freedom. But according to Ariel, “if you don’t wash your dirty linen in public, it doesn’t get washed.” The community has to decide, in effect, whether we lose more by addressing problems or avoiding them.
He believes the “experimental, transformative learning” Makom presents can widen and deepen the conversation about an Israel he characterizes as a subject of “inspiration and alienation, a source of both shame and strength,” and one of confusion, if not disappointment, among many young American Jews.
Ariel, a friendly and outgoing native of Birmingham, England, made aliyah alone in 1993, and has taught at the high school and university level, with an emphasis on modern Jewish history and adult education.
At Makom he helped develop what he calls the “five strands of pedagogy” that are critical in having people talk about Israel: first, “acknowledging the elephant in the room,” allowing participants to vocalize their fears about Israel as well as their positive thoughts; second, localizing the discussion and putting it in the context of their own community; third, making sure a full range of voices and points of view are represented in the discussion; fourth, “embedding Jewish peoplehood deeply” in the talks, thus avoiding the trap of thinking of Israel as “an add-on” to Jewish identity; and fifth, endorsing the notion “to better Israel and not batter Israel,” asserting that a healthy educational process should lead toward solving rather than aggravating problems.
With the collapse of the Mideast peace talks, many Israelis have come to believe that they can no longer put off difficult issues until peace with the Arabs has been achieved. “Fix it now” is the new mantra, according to Ariel, who points to the summer of massive societal protests throughout Israel as a case in point.
He believes American Jews have an especially difficult time getting past “the mythic Israel” and facing up to the reality of a country criticized internally on the left for its treatment of Palestinians and on the right for expressing willingness to cede land in peace talks.
Ariel mentioned a conversation he had with an American pulpit rabbi who was fearful of speaking in public about controversies in Israel because he felt his professional reputation as a leader did not allow him to admit he didn’t have all the answers.
Some rabbis refer to Israel today as “the third-rail topic” and avoid it in sermons so as not to alienate their congregants.
Although we tend to focus on American Jews getting much of their Jewish identity from the heritage and culture of Israel, Makom believes a symbiotic relationship is required. And Ariel notes that Israelis have benefited from observing and seeking to replicate America’s sense of equality, as seen in the flourishing of civil rights movements and NGOs in Israeli society and, in religious life, independent minyanim and non-Orthodox Talmud study adapted from U.S. models.
In the U.S., Makom is working with a variety of groups like JCCs and federations, including UJA-Federation of New York, in various forms of Israel engagement.
Last year, for example, Makom was involved in planning New York’s Israel Day Parade, and it encouraged Jewish community relations officials to change the slogan from Salute to Israel — a military term — to Celebrate Israel.
“We talk a great deal about engaging Israel beyond the conflict,” notes Alisa Kurshan, senior vice president of UJA-Federation, “but Makom is one of the few out there providing the resources to do it.”
That includes guides and curricula on Israeli art, culture, books and music so that educators here can help close the social divide between Americans and Israelis.
Other information on the impressive Makom website (www.makomisrael.org) includes suggestions, from the practical (topics for discussion in car pool) to the conceptual (how to turn Yom Ha’Atzmaut into Chag Ha’Atzmaut).
With the Jewish Agency in the process of redirecting its focus from aliyah and absorption to strengthening Jewish identity, Makom is also playing a key internal role. Kurshan says the small department is “breathing content life into areas like social activism and Israel experiences. It’s influencing the entire agency and that is very positive.”
While some say Makom is better at developing and framing conceptual and intellectual ideas than delivering practical programming, others speak to the real need for exploring and generating big ideas.
Jonny Ariel says he would like to see Jews everywhere thinking about what the Jewish people should do next as a people, a question he calls “evocative” and worthy of deep and widespread thought.
It’s good to know creative minds are at work, looking to the Jewish future, and that they are eager for us to join them in dreaming together.