Bold new project is challenging Israel and the diaspora to transform themselves and the world.
A century after the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic Russian hoax claiming Jews were seeking to take over the world, a small group of Israeli and American Jews — think of them as The Youngers of Zion — has spent the last 18 months formulating what it calls “an audacious plan” to repair the world.
The proposal, framed by the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank, and the Alliance for Global Good, an American nonprofit organization, is called “21st Century Tikkun Olam.” It’s nothing less than a global engagement strategy for the State of Israel and the Jewish diaspora — a total of about 14 million people — to dramatically improve the lives of at least 250 million people in the next decade.
The primary purpose, the planners say, is simply to fulfill the core Jewish value of improving the world by addressing human suffering. But its other benefits include strengthening the bonds between Israel and the diaspora, and enhancing Israel’s standing in the international community.
After meeting with and interviewing more than 150 thought leaders and activists over the last year and a half, the planners convened a roundtable discussion last month in New York. The goal was to present their ideas to two dozen Jewish professional and lay leaders, some of whose organizations were potential partners, and to elicit their reactions and gauge their responses.
As one of the participants, I would say we were, as a group, very much impressed with the concept, and excited by its bold reach. But over the course of the two-hour session, a number of people sitting around the table questioned the practicality of the proposal, which calls on the government of Israel and American Jewish organizations and foundations to collaborate closely in providing funds and expertise in addressing a few key areas of global need, like water, food, energy security and natal health.
“No one here would argue with your vision,” one Jewish professional said before noting how difficult it is to get American Jewish organizations to work together, much less to coordinate a major sustained effort that would include the government of Israel, and American Jewish organizations, philanthropies, businesses and entrepreneurs.
Indeed, much talk focused on “the devil in the details” of implementing the enormous task at hand, from agreeing on the premise and common goals to leveraging the participating partners’ resources and skills.
Several emphasized the need for strong leadership to make it happen. Other suggested starting small and expanding over time rather than trying to achieve large-scale consensus first. One skeptic said the plan was too ambitious. “It sounds like you’re trying to mobilize the entire world on these projects,” she said.
Yes, it will be very difficult to accomplish, acknowledged David Brand, president and CEO of the Alliance for Global Good. But, he noted, “no pressure, no diamonds.”
Making A Huge Difference
Daphna Kaufman of Reut, who served as team leader of the project, offered a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation, describing the vision and strategy of the Tikkun Olam plan, beginning with the key question: how can Israel and the Jewish people make a global contribution to humanity?
She asserted that in addition to the ethical imperative of helping humanity, the plan could address three important issues. First, Israel’s security amid increasing attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state. The project would counterbalance efforts to marginalize and isolate Israel by involving it in areas of international development cooperation, serving “as a platform for strategic relationships with nations, organizations, communities and influential individuals.”
Second, the project would strengthen the bond between the State of Israel and Jews around the world, adding to their sense of “shared history, destiny and peoplehood in a time of growing gaps.”
It was noted that the Tikkun Olam project could resonate strongly and positively with people on the left or right of the political spectrum. It would heighten Israel’s relevance to young people on the left by demonstrating that the Jewish state is playing a key role to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
It would also be popular with Jews on the right who recognize the benefits of combating the delegitimization campaign; the project would give Israel a leadership role in humanitarian efforts on an international scale.
And third, the project would bolster Israel’s economy, providing the state with new export markets and possibilities for partnerships and business in addressing the needs of the world’s poorest nations.
Avraham Infeld, a seasoned professional who has headed Hillel International and several foundations and serves as a mentor for Reut, emphasized that the Tikkun Olam program is “a ‘must have,’ not a ‘nice to have’ plan” in terms of moral imperatives to alleviate human suffering and in shifting the current Jewish discourse from “an ethos of victimization and isolation” to one “embracing empowerment and engagement,” according to the proposal.
Still, the initiators of the plan recognize that at best, it will take two to three years to get it off the ground.
Gidi Grinstein, the founder and president of Reut, said the immediate goal was to introduce the concept and discuss how to have a high-level conversation in the Jewish community about implementing it. Then comes what he called “the long journey of branding the vision” through presenting the proposal to groups and individuals in large and small forums, and identifying allies and partners for the action phase.
Anti-BDS Campaign A Model
In an interview this week Grinstein pointed to a Reut success story in introducing a major new way of thinking to the Jewish community and having it accepted on a large-scale level: his group’s effort several years ago to come up with a systemic campaign to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement by identifying key problem areas, creating a strategy, explaining it far and wide until important groups understood and bought into the plan, and then implementing it through diverse partnerships. In the BDS case Reut worked with a number of Jewish organizations in London and San Francisco, where the problem was particularly potent, as well as the government of Israel and national and international Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America. Today the Reut approach — using the concepts of “broad tent” and “red lines” in responding to attacks on Israel’s legitimacy — is widely accepted in the pro-Israel community in marginalizing the delegitimizers and re-engaging Jewish groups that had been pushed aside.
In one respect, the Tikkun Olam project takes the pro-Israel response to the BDS campaign to a higher level by creating what Grinstein calls “a legitimacy surplus,” raising Israel’s standing in the world through its humanitarian programs to help the needy at a time when its legitimacy is being questioned.
Grinstein said Reut, acting as a catalyst, has learned to create a critical mass of players — government officials, organizations, universities, philanthropists, businesses, etc. — who embrace the concept of a proposed plan and are prepared to act on it on their own.
“At some point the logic becomes irresistible, and they want a piece of the action,” he said.
That’s what he expects to happen with the Tikkun Olam project.
“You create a space and an environment and allow others to come in,” he said, noting that the Israeli government, like all governments, is risk-averse and will only become involved after others have already succeeded.
I came away from the roundtable heartened by the sheer grandness and daring of the Tikkun Olam plan, and proud that highly talented people were devoting enormous time and energy to transforming Jewish life in a way that could benefit much of the world. But at the same time I thought back on how many creative projects have failed in our community, the victims of turf battles and small-minded thinking that results in internal competition rather than wide-scale cooperation.
Are we ready for this challenge?
A project of this scope requires the full participation and leadership of the government of Israel, recognizing the potential benefit it could have for the state, the Jewish people and the world. But petty politics, so commonplace in Jerusalem, could easily prevent this project from getting off the ground.
That would be more than a shame, but not surprising.
For now, it’s important for the planners to let their ideas be shared, considered and debated — but only up to a point. There will never be full agreement. The key is to convince enough partners from the worlds of business, government, philanthropy and Jewish organizational life to start translating this grand vision into projects on the ground. Once they meet success, others will want to join, turning “tikkun olam” from a cliché into a blessed reality.
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