‘Honest engagement’ about Israel

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

With so much of the news regarding Israel focused on terrorism, conflicts and the general violence in the explosive Middle East, many Americans do not realize that there is much more to the Jewish State than is reflected in daily headlines. MAKOM, the Israel Engagement Network, seeks to help communicate “Israel in all its complexities, and to encourage open discussion about issues of agreement and disagreement.”

Scott Copeland, 45, director of travel education for MAKOM, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was in St. Louis last week on business. Copeland grew up in Boston, graduated from Brandeis University and made aliyah with his then-fiancee Ronit. The couple, who has been married for 23 years, has a 16-year-old daughter named Yael and live in the Mevessarat Tzion, outside of Jerusalem.

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During his trip to St. Louis, Copeland stopped by the offices of the St. Louis Jewish Light to discuss the work of his agency and how it tries to provide more depth to the overall image of Israel.

How long has MAKOM been in existence, and what are its mission and goals?

MAKOM has been around six or seven years. I joined about two years ago. It’s a funny thing because I had been involved as a kind of outside educator. After MAKOM was formed, a number of us who share a background in being trained at leadership institutes decided to join the organization. I had worked for five years with the Mandel Leadership Institute. John Ariel, who heads MAKOM, recruited me.

What’s the significance behind MAKOM’s name?

It means “place.” What’s interesting about the name is that it’s a double meaning — it is both a physical place, but many times in Hebrew, it is one of the many names of God. So the name brings the physical and the spiritual together.

Is MAKOM its own entity, or is it linked with the Jewish Agency or Ministry of Education?

We are an educational unit that is a cooperation between the Jewish Agency and Jewish communities in the United States. That issue of the political and the economic connection between communities through the Jewish Agency is an important value statement. We don’t want to be in a situation where engagement with Israel is wholly the ‘property’ of Israel. This is an essential, foundational element in Jewish life. If we don’t share ownership of it on both sides of the ocean, then who’s going to own it? That’s a big part of how we understand our mission.

What is your message to our local Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, the Central Agency for Jewish Education, the synagogues, etc.? What are you asking us, here, to do?

Well, I put it this way: When in Jewish history, have we had such an incredible opportunity? The State of Israel is still a relatively new project for the Jewish people. So, for the Jewish community in St. Louis, or in other communities, the idea is that Israel holds out a whole array of situations and opportunities that we’ve never had. It’s a way to invigorate and excite and stimulate Jewish life through the experimental nature of what Israel is all about.

Give me a couple of practical examples of what you’re talking about.

Over the winter, we were all very obviously concerned about what was going on over in Gaza. Our self-image as Jews in the world is not necessarily that of being a military power. Yet here for the first time in many centuries, all of a sudden the Jewish people have an army of their own. We want to look at what that means. Part of our work is to raise those questions, such as, wait a second, what does it mean for the Jewish people all of a sudden to have military power? How is that power exercised ethically? What are the limits? When we do something that is questionable, how is that reflected in Israeli public discourse? We are trying to open people up to these kinds of questions, which are for sure Jewish questions, but also larger world questions.

Are you targeting your message to any specific age level?

The main age groups we are working with are high school and up, although, for the most part, we are not working with students. We establish relationships with educators, rabbis and professional leadership in the communities. We try to do training and consultation. These programs impact on congregations, educational programs, schools, Hillels, etc.

MAKOM talks about the importance of ‘honest engagement’ about Israel. Does that imply that we have been less than honest in our engagement with Israel?

When I met with someone, I believe in Pittsburgh, I was told that Jewish groups tend to be either in a defensive mode about Israel or tend to be deflective. I think that’s an interesting way of putting it. Our contention is that like a lot of things in Jewish education, unfortunately, we tend to give people a kind of juvenile Judaism. As our students go off to Stanford or Brandeis, and become doctors and lawyers, somehow between the general education and their Jewish education there’s this enormous gap. Then they look back and say, ‘Wait a second, the Jewish piece,’ is not really relevant. Our contention is that if we really want people to take these things seriously, we owe them a commitment to be honest and sophisticated. People watch CNN, the read the newspaper, they know that Israel, like every country is real, complicated, and flawed. So we can be aware of Israel’s flaws and still love Israel. What we’re trying to do is to encourage a kind of mature love for Israel.

Do you blend in biblical and other texts with your materials?

Absolutely. If you take a look at any of our cultural or environmental materials, there’s always an attempt to use Hebrew poetry, for example, literature, the Bible, Jewish philosophy. Again, what we are arguing is that Israel is part of the warp and the weave of Jewish civilization just like these other things. And so it has to be integrated if we really want to get to that level of depth where it’s not just some country in a corner of the Middle East.