WASHINGTON — Zack Bodner would like to start a new kind of discussion. Specifically, he’d like his organization, The Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, to be “an incubator for new expressions of Jewish identity” and transform the Jewish community’s collective dialogue about its own future.
That ambition will come to fruition on September 18, when his Palo Alto, California-based JCC will host its second annual Zionism 3.0 Conference, a day-long event that brings a host of diverse speakers and provocative questions about the condition of both the Jewish people and Zionism in the 21st Century.
Bodner, who is CEO of the Oshman Family JCC, inaugurated the confab last year amid the heated — and, at times, bitter — debate over the agreement US President Barack Obama forged to curtail Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
“We recognized that there was beginning to be a cleavage in the community, really during and after the Iran deal, and we realized that we needed to bring the community together,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “You need to be able to have an open conversation with people of different opinions, and you need to be able to mend splits.”
While this year’s conference has “no precipitating event like the Iran deal” was for 2015’s gathering, the upcoming summit, which be available to live stream, will focus on Israeli-Diaspora relations.
“The idea behind this conference,” Bodner said, “is whether Israeli and Jewish Americans should see themselves as sharing a collective future and whether we are equal stakeholders in Israel.”
The day-long meeting — of which The Times of Israel is a sponsor — will consist of distinguished speakers like veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross and former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzner.
But it will also include writers who have focused on the meaning of contemporary Zionism and Jewish identity, like Dr. Einat Wilf, author of the book “My Israel: Our Generation,” Times of Israel’s new media editor Sarah Tuttle-Singer and Shalem College’s senior vice president Daniel Gordis; as well as writers and journalists like Yossi Klein Halevi and Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren and Avi Issacharoff.
The intellectual foundation of Zionism 3.0, Bodner contends, is based off his belief that Zionism is heading into its third phase, and that there is a need to collectively prepare for entering “the next stage.”
‘For the first time in Jewish history, there is both a strong Jewish Diaspora and a strong Jewish homeland’
The first phase was pre-1948 and the foundation of the State of Israel, it centered around the belief of Jewish nationalism and self-determination. The second phase was 1948 to the turn of the century, which entailed some Jews making aliyah, while others who couldn’t make the move sent money to help the nascent Jewish state survive. And the third phase is when Jews in the Diaspora want more of a say about what’s happening in Israel and Israelis want more of a say about what’s happening in the broader Jewish community, according to Bodner.
Thus, the conference — which has a subtitle of “pursuing a shared dream” — is designed to bring together thinkers from both Jewish centers. “For the first time in Jewish history, there is both a strong Jewish Diaspora and a strong Jewish homeland,” Bodner emphasized, “So what does that mean? How do they interact with each other under this new paradigm?”
Palo Alto has one of the largest population of Israeli expatriates in the world, which is part of what makes it a fitting location for such a discussion. Over the last several years, there have been many conferences and panel discussions hosted by American Jewish organizations that focused on the plight of Israel, but there is less focus from Israelis on the plight of American Jewry. Part of the reason for the Northern California confab is to integrate the two discussions.
But while the biggest story in the United States remains the roller coaster of a presidential election season, Bodner has said they will focus little on the heated contest. Acknowledging that Republican nominee Donald Trump — who has ignited passionate reactions from the Jewish community, mostly aghast — is a “sexy topic,” the JCC head wants to focus the conversation more on the conference’s central theme.
Similarly, very little attention will be paid to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — as last year’s gathering gave it more time.
Although the Oshman Family JCC made a concerted effort to include multiple, indeed, competing, perspectives in the dialogue — one breakout session will be hosted by AIPAC officials, another by the Israel Policy Forum — they did institute a “tent poll” that precluded BDS-supporters from speaking. “We believe the folks that come here and speak should be folks who believe in a democratic Jewish state of Israel to exist,” Bodner stated.
Nevertheless, he said he wants to facilitate an environment where differences can be discussed openly. “In a lot of places there’s an unwillingness to talk about Israel right now because it seems like a divisive issue, and we’re saying it’s not a divisive issue, it doesn’t have to be a divisive issue,” he said. “You can come from a place of love for Israel, even if you’re not in agreement.”
“We want to be a launching pad for these conversations that will drive the Jews and Zionism’s collective future,” he added.