Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Optimistic Jew

It seems appropriate today, the day after Tisha b'Av, to turn toward the future with hope and optimism.

Tsvi Bisk, Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Israel, is the author of the just-released and very well-written The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. Somehow he found li'l ol' me and asked if I'd consider writing a review. Just a summary of the book had me intrigued, and The Optimistic Jew is well worth the read.

As an added bonus, Tsvi will be speaking in St. Paul this Sunday at 10:30am at the St. Paul JCC, and also at the World Future 2007 Conference at the Minneapolis Hilton between July 29 - August 1. I'll be attending his lecture at the St. Paul JCC. If you're in town, come see him! (And me! I'm friendly, honest!) With any luck, I'll be able to post an interview with him here, too.

So without further delay, here's more on The Optimistic Jew.

With the sobering predictions from successive American Jewish population studies, it’s easy to become pessimistic about whether it’s going to be worth it in the long run to raise an increasingly smaller new generation with a strong Jewish identity. Is there a reason for paying thousands of dollars for a child’s Jewish education?

Unequivocally, yes, says Tsvi Bisk in his new book, The Optimistic Jew (Maxanna Press, 2007). Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Kfar Saba, Israel, Bisk not only knows that there’s a reason to be optimistic, he outlines exactly how we can create a strong, vibrant Jewish future, attracting younger generations of disenfranchised and unaffiliated Jews in the process. And we can do it in our own lifetime.

There are several keys to achieve this, according to Bisk. One is embracing cultural pluralism, and he likens it to an environmental paradigm:

“Environmentalism recognizes that “monoculturalism” (the cultivation of a single crop over extensive areas) endangers the health of the entire ecological system. Ecological systems that have an increasing variety of species and ever-increasing interactions between these species are healthy, vigorous, and robust. Ecological systems that have a diminishing variety of species and diminishing interaction between these species are sick and susceptible to collapse.” (p. 31)
And Bisk dismisses the idea that one has to choose between cultures: Jewish versus American versus Israeli versus any other cultural heritage, stating, “Individuals who cultivate within themselves a plurality of cultures also have a much better chance of succeeding. […] To the extent that Israel and the Jewish people at large can make this cultural attitude a norm, we will truly be a light unto the nations.” (pp. 139-140)

Another key is redefining Zionism for the 21st century. While Zionism was indeed a success, it is no longer applicable either to Israelis or the Diaspora. Writes Bisk, “Many young Diaspora and Israeli Jews have grown distant from Israel in recent years because Zionism is a 19th century ideology trying to come to terms with a 21st century reality.” (p. 57). In clear, down to earth language, Bisk retraces the history of Zionism, how it grew, how it succeeded, and what needs to happen to reinvent it for today and the future.

The third key relates to the role of Israel, within both Israeli and Diaspora culture. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the primary relationship has been one of the Diaspora financially funding Israeli organizations, ultimately directed by Israeli politics. Some Israelis, Bisk writes, claim that not only have these contributions had little effect on Israeli citizens, they have actually become detrimental.

“The time has come for a new paradigm wherein these relatively small sums go directly […] to more efficient and effective public administration, innovative educational initiatives and national projects (such as energy independence) that could mobilize the energies and skills of large numbers of uninvolved Jews.” (pp. 68-69)
Bisk casts a sharp eye on the secular European Enlightenment, citing it as the basis for a global return to fundamentalism in any religion. While Jewish responses to the Enlightenment brought us this far, he writes, they cannot sustain Jewish identity into the future. This is not simply a case of changing beliefs or creating belief where there was none, but rather creating entirely new Jewish expressions.

Pulling together politics, psychology, economics, history, sociology, and ecology, Bisk describes where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can be. He offers specific ideas and suggestions for creating the optimistic future he envisions, and cites actions we can take as both individuals and a people. Of particular interest is his outline for the Jewish Energy Project, which can all at once invigorate today’s Jews, reassert Israel’s place in Jewish life, and tackle the growing dependence on foreign oil.

For anyone who is interested in what the future of the Jewish people can look like—if we will it—this is a highly recommended solid read with a potentially real outcome.
Post a Comment