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By Mira Sucharov, December 15, 2010

First there was the Pepsi challenge, which was sweet and sodium-filled, but not particularly challenging. For 2011, I’d like to present what I call the Hillel challenge.

The famous three-pronged dictum uttered by the ancient Jewish sage -- If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when? -- gets a lot of play these days. But if we think about the “I” in the collective sense, as in the Jewish community, I see lot more of the first part going on than the second part. We are doing a better job bolstering Jewish identity than we are helping Jewish identity operate in broadly humanistic terms.

It’s tricky to think universally when we are trying to make Jewish life meaningful. And helping Jews relish their unique cultural heritage and historical footprint is obviously valuable. But when we sit in shul on shabbat morning, organize an on-campus event, invite a Jewish-themed speaker, or even post something on facebook that is informed by our Jewish identity, how much are we thinking about how we, as a community, can build bridges with other communities?  There’s a lot of worrying about how others view the Jews (there is no dearth of discussions of anti-Semitism). But fewer conversations focus on how we can better connect to others.

Take Israel advocacy. The message we are funding and delivering as a community is that Israel’s policies need defending in the court of public opinion, and our students should be Israel’s public-relations messengers. Many Jews the world over were thrilled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech -- a clip of which went viral -- that he would support Israel, “whatever the cost.” Some Israeli security analysts who had hardly given Canada a second thought are now championing Harper.

But we should also be scrutinizing the impact of Israeli actions on others. Yes, it can be painful. But we are hardly honouring Hillel’s teachings if we look out only for ourselves.

Israel’s attempt to create “facts on the ground” in the form of moving hundreds of thousands of settlers into the West Bank may have originally been motivated to defend its eastern flank from future attack after the Six Day War. But the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan has by now rendered that strategy hollow.

Instead, we now have the luxury of looking at how the checkpoints and the special settler-only access roads impinge on the daily freedom of Israel’s most intimate neighbours: the Palestinians. Who is talking to our students about that? Put more starkly, can’t we care about both peoples at the same time? If we really did, then more of us would not only be lauding Harper for his loyalty, but we would be sharing clips of President Obama desperately trying to facilitate two states for two peoples. Everyone in the region -- not just West Bank settlers -- should be able to enjoy freedom of movement and national fulfillment.

In our collective endeavors, we are peddling more embattlement than empathy.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, groups like American Jewish World Service and Avodah do a great job of marrying the concerns of Jewish identity with global justice. A Jewish peace corps of sorts, AJWS has recently put itself on the map with a hilarious, star-studded video that went viral around facebook. I suspect that many people who shared the clip had never heard of AJWS. But it’s an impressive organization that is worthy of our attention. Avodah provides an even more intensely Jewish experience by pairing social justice projects in the U.S. with formal Judaic study.

Groups like this -- as well as the many Jewish groups who rally for Darfur -- recognize that particularistic identities gain meaning and texture precisely through engaging with the ills of the broader world. Charity may begin at home, but it cannot end there.

There is a logic to fanning the flames of distrust -- whether it be fearing another people  or the disembodied threat of assimilation. Social theorists know that emphasizing an “other” helps secure a sense of “self.” But this strategy comes at a cost. Those who are naturally more universal-looking may decide that the message of Jewish continuity for its own sake simply isn’t sufficiently compelling. And to keep our communities healthy and vital, we need their voices.

So, for 2011, I encourage all of us to add an extra helping of the second part of Hillel’s dictum (“if I am only for myself who am I?”) to the project of Jewish-identity building. The product will be the richer for it. And the next generations will be able to maintain the delicate balance of Jewish particularism against a bedrock of humanist universalism.

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