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.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sheyna,
Just so you know, Bisk has also asked us to read and write a review as well, and we will be linking to your review. We are assuming this is OK with you, if not please email us through our site:
www.newzionist.com

Claudia Chaves said...

Book review of “THE OPTIMISTIC JEW: A positive vision for the Jewish People in the 21st century”, by Tsvi Bisk, (2007, Maxanna Press).
By Claudia Chaves

Given the immense challenges facing the Jewish people today, a book entitled “The Optimistic Jew” would seem to be either a bad joke or wishful thinking. But it isn’t. The title and the content grew from decades of deep thinking and study by futurist Tsvi Bisk, who points to a truly possible future for the Jews -- if we dare to hope for one and commit to making it happen. The author isn’t stuck on his version of a future, and invites the reader to create a positive future that includes her/his own self-actualization. He leads by example – and the power of his example derives from values dear to the Jewish people: breadth and depth of learning, the courage to hold a redemptive vision, and down to earth practicality. Analyzing present world trends, understanding Jewish history, and rooted in the Zionism and the pragmatism of Ben Gurion, Tsvi Bisk shows us a path forward.

Some of us work to understand and mitigate the present threats to Israel’s survival as a vibrant country and society, and the threats to Jews’ sense of security and dignity in a world again rife with anti-Semitism. I call this work the “anti” work. Hard and painful as it is, it is essential work. But it acquires new meaning when we also work as cultural creatives – I call this the “pro” work. With the very real freedom we have today as Jews, and preserving our internal freedom from encroachment by hopelessness and apathy; with the enormous strength, inspiration and learning we can draw from our history and ancestors, and with the wisdom and learning we draw from other peoples and traditions, we can create a beautiful and powerful future.

Some of us work in this “anti” and “pro” directions not just relative to the future of the Jewish people, but of humankind, of the planet and all sentient beings. This book focuses on the first of these but doesn’t exclude the others. Tsvi Bisk sees them as complementary. Depending on how comfortably and consciously Jewish identity fits for any individual Jew with the other levels of his/her identity, so will focusing on the future of the Jewish people complement their work for a positive future for all.

In my own experience of pointing out a path forward – a path which integrates but is not held back by the present obstacles – I have found that people very rarely dare to vision, and therefore also rarely dare to commit and act in a timely way. Staying within the herd seems to be a more powerful force for humans in general, than ensuring a good future for all. Leaders are generally far more interested in personal glory (requiring herd approval) than leading towards a good future for all. As a consequence, a bad future arrives – a deterministic future: determined by the forces that were at work in the present when people opted for inercia, apathy, divisiveness, powerlessness. Tsvi Bisk tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Just reading his understanding of Zionism is a balm to the heart and health food to the mind. (Zionism being a word so distorted and maligned in the world, that many Jews have become “closet Zionists”). Tsvi not only brings it with dignity out of the closet , but he is one of our best teachers on Zionism for the many Jews who know little about it and lack the sense of historical perspective. (His other book, Futurizing the Jews, goes into more depth relative to the historical origins of Zionism as a movement).

Bisk realizes that most Jews today live in a highly individualistic world. Collectivist cultural values and norms are on the wane in the experience of most Jews. (He likes the way the pendulum has swung. Others of us may prefer other combinations of individualistic and collectivistic cultural habitats). Zionism always held as one of its highest values Hagshama Atzmit, Self-Actualization, but the mix of individualistic and collectivistic values and feelings that brought about self-actualization for Jews 50 to 100 years ago is a different mix today. This is a fact, and Tsvi Bisk modernizes Zionism by acknowledging the real and potent integration possible today between what is meaningful for individual Jews and creating a good future for the Jewish people.

Having said all this, I don’t agree with Tsvi on every single point. Neither may you. But this book has convinced me to become his ally in the creation of the future, and I believe and hope that many others that read it will be inspired to do so also. This is an excellent book for book clubs and study groups.

Sheyna said...

Anon - no problem. The more the merrier, and I'll take all the links you want to throw my way.
:-)

Claudia - I saw your review after mine on Amazon. Thanks for adding it here.