I keep thinking about the meeting I attended several weeks ago sponsored by the Wexner Foundation during the GA in Israel.  Wexner alumni from all 3 programs (Heritage, Israel and Graduate Fellowships) gathered for an exclusive Wexner program led by Colonel (ret.) Miri Eisen, the Israeli Prime Minister’s international media advisor; Gordon Hecker, Wexner Heritage alumnus (Columbus ‘00) and recently elected President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Columbus; and Jonathan Ya’ari, Wexner Israel Fellowship alumnus (Class 24) and Head of the Air Defense Branch, Israeli Air Force.

The topic of the panel was challenging: how do we as different Jewish communities (Israeli and North American Jews) regard and relate to power?  What are the different types and symbols of power we use, or could use, to strengthen Jewish community? What are, or should be, the differences today between sovereign power, power of community and individual power? To what degree are power and strength the same concepts?  

We began with a clear differentiation between the ways in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews have traditionally regarded power, and whether we are moving closer in our perceptions and practice. For Israelis, in the past as well as the present, the appearance of strength has always been crucial and essential for survival – sovereign imperative demands that Israel as a nation appear strong and powerful. Power for North American Jews is less overt, less oriented towards military or even political expression, and more about behind the scenes influence; they seem to have a clear understanding of the need for power and a strong commitment to exercise it, but without talking about it directly.

When American Jews express their power, use influence, they walk a tightrope,  understanding that the best way to use power is to build coalitions, to demonstrate that meeting Jewish interests, including those committed to the future of the State of Israel,  are concomitant with meeting American interests – otherwise they will become marginalized.  In fact, communal power of American Jews is stronger than ever before, strong enough to leave room for different views, for dissent.

The panel raised the question whether Israel today is strong enough, to “walk softly but carry a big stick?”  Is Israel able, and is it even imperative, for Israelis to understand that the time has come for wielding less direct power, that the power essential for self-protection is no longer just a military issue?  Should we be trying to move towards a paradigm that Professor Marshall Ganz at the Harvard Kennedy School calls “power with” as opposed to “power over?” Is this even realistic for Israel?

Towards the end of our session, many in the audience felt that the discussion of power in both Israel and North America should be expanded, and perhaps reframed.  We should really be asking the question:  “exercising power for what?”  What are we striving to keep, or change, in our Jewish societies? What are the changing definitions of self-identification with Judaism? And what is the nature of power we require to define, build and commit towards achieving our goals as enduring Jewish communities, in relation to our fellow citizens or neighbors? The parameters are different in our two communities, but the urgency of continued existence is the same, and continued dialogue is essential.

Brenda Morginstin is an independent consultant for social service development and management. Previously, she worked as Director of the Division for Service Development Funds at Israel’s National Insurance Institute, and directed the Division of Research in Long Term Benefits. Brenda has an MSW in Social Work research and administration from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a B.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College, and an MA in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she was a Wexner Israel Fellow in Class 4. Brenda can be reached at brenmor3@gmail.com.