Elan Ezrachi is an independent consultant to international Jewish organizations, is a community activist in Jerusalem and a founding fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education. Elan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I live in the heart of Jerusalem. I mostly work as a professional with international Jewish organizations. This means that I am destined to meet many Jews from around the world, as they come to Jerusalem to conduct their affairs. This past summer it feels like everybody assembled here at the same time. The city is full of lay leaders and senior professionals of major Jewish organizations, rabbis and educators, synagogue groups, birthright Israel pilgrims, high school age programs participants and individual visitors – all coming at once to the city (Imagine what it would be like if the Wexner Heritage members would be here; it so happens to be their "off" year).
When you walk around the city you really feel that the biblical concept of pilgrimage is taking on a modern meaning. English is heard everywhere, the tourist industry is booming. This is heartening and encouraging. Jerusalem is truly the center of the Jewish world.
But what is the quality of engagement that the visitors have with Jerusalem and with Israel on the whole? Does a visit to Israel really provide a window to life in the Jewish state? Not necessarily. One can be in Israel, visit the key historical and religious sites, have fun, and at the same time be shielded from deep immersion with the reality of life in Israel.
The American Jewish community is known for its pro-Israel disposition. With all the identifiable erosions in this position, Israel still evokes powerful emotional reactions among the rank and file of American Jews. This feeling toward Israel is strengthened when Americans visit the Jewish State, often in the context of an educational program. Decades of such visits show that participants return from Israel, impressed and excited. This is best manifested in the knowledge gained from the birthright Israel project that brought to Israel over 300,000 young adults in the course of the last decade. Visits to Israel rarely fail.
But visiting Israel is not necessarily an endeavor that involves engaging with Israel. Most American Jews who visit Israel are cut off from the day-to-day reality of the Jewish State. Israel is a complex entity, a result of a century-old historical process that set the stage for the dramatic story of modern Israel. Today, Israel is the largest Jewish community in the world, a Hebrew speaking environment and a diverse and robust economy and culture. American Jews were not involved in the development of this project. In fact, American Jews were invested in forming a parallel project, creating the new American Jewish civilization as a free and creative Jewish community within the greater American experience. It therefore is no wonder that when American Jews come to Israel, they feel like outsiders.
The visit to Israel is not necessarily a step toward getting a better understanding of Israel. On the contrary, visiting Israel could be confusing, puzzling and even alienating. Jewish visitors experience Israel with a mixed baggage of feelings of homecoming to the Jewish homeland and estrangement toward an unfamiliar territory. In order to avoid this confusion, program organizers tend to wrap the visitors with protective shields in the form of tour guides, simplistic narratives, and specially tailored experiences. The shield keeps the visitors satisfied and impressed and ensures that they return to their communities with motivation to intensify their Jewishness and support Israel.
Our challenge is to change this paradigm which is easier to say rather than to do. If Americans will continue to arrive in Israel with a very weak knowledge base and a simplistic view of what Israel stands for, they will quickly fall into the trap of confusion and the program organizers will rush to protect them from the frustration that they are bound to encounter.
It should be our hope and intention to educate American Jews that the Israel they love and cherish is far from being a perfect and one-dimensional entity. Israel is a complex and challenging story of modern Jewish existence with unprecedented achievements and huge challenges. A true engagement with Israel would happen only through immersive experiences with the people and culture of Israel, recognizing nuances and realizing that Israel is a joint venture of the entire Jewish People. The visit to Israel and the implications beyond the visit should be an opportunity for world Jewry to work together with their Israeli counterparts on ensuring that Israel will continue to fulfill the generations old vision of Judaism.