Judaism Unbound Episode 125: Complementary Zions - Zachary Schaffer


In our ongoing exploration of the relationship of American Jews and Israel, Dan and Lex are joined by educator and activist Zach Schaffer, whose work focuses on helping Jewish federations and similar organizations talk across ideological, generational, and religious divides. Schaffer describes his approach to Israel education, engagement, and advocacy, encourages dialogue across ideological differences, and suggests that the framing of "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel" is unhelpful to the project of engagement and relationship-building with Israel.

(0:01 - 13:27): To begin the episode, Schaffer outlines key differences in how different generations of American Jews experience and conceptualize the role of Israel in their lives. He also looks at the concepts of Israel education, Israel advocacy, and Israel engagement, exploring how they are both inter-related and distinct from one another. [1] Schaffer then looks in particular at the relationship between American Jews and Israel, asking whether it may be useful to re-think Zionism so that Israel and America are understood to be "complementary Zions."

(13:28 - 29:46): Schaffer then provides his thoughts on the issue of Jewish communal red-lines. Why do Jewish institutions create boundaries on permissible discourse around Israel? How might it still be possible, with those red lines in place, for individuals to bridge disagreements and find common ground through productive conversations? In approaching this subject, Schaffer critiques the tendency that people have (along the entire spectrum of opinion) to caricature those who have contrasting ideas.

(29:47 - 48:58): Through a brief moment of Jewish textual interpretation, Schaffer explores the concept of the Jewish diaspora. [2] He uses chapter 12 of Genesis, [3] when God tells Abram both "to be a blessing" and that he "will be a great nation," and argues that the first half of that statement proves most meaningful for Jews in diaspora, while the second half plays a more important role for Jews in Israel. [4] He suggests that the use of the term "pro-Israel," implicitly contrasted with "anti-Israel," makes it harder to educate, advocate for, or engage with Israel. [5] To close the episode, Schaffer suggests that people of all ideologies come together to support organizations that create contexts for co-existence among Israelis and Palestinians. [6] 

 Image Credit: Shlomo Shva Collection

Image Credit: Shlomo Shva Collection

[1] As one example of the kinds of sources he did not engage with in formative Jewish educational contexts, Schaffer cites Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat). You can read a full English translation of it, in pdf form, at this link.

[2] For a fuller exploration of the terminology and conception of diaspora, see New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, written by Caryn Aviv and David Schneer.

[3] Dive deeper into the text that Schaffer cites, from Genesis 12, by viewing that chapter (and related commentaries) on Sefaria

[4] Schaffer critiques a tendency of some, who emphasize Israeli technological achievements and inventions as a reason to be "pro-Israel." He includes the cherry tomato as one example of an invention that has been cited to a great degree. For an article that similarly critiques this kind of advocacy, see "Israel is losing support among millennials and minorities, study finds," authored by Ben Sales in JTA.

[5] Towards the close of the episode, Schaffer mentions Grace Paley's idea that Jews should be a "splinter in the toe of civilizations, a victim to aggravate the conscience." To learn more about Paley's conception, see "A Splinter in the Toe: Mothering and Democracy in Grace Paley's Fiction," by Kremena Todorova.