Two Zionists walk into an elevator
Posted by Michael F.Blackburn Sr. on May 18, 2012
an Elevator Pitch is, according to one definition:
a very concise presentation of an idea covering all of its critical aspects, and delivered within a few seconds (the approximate duration of an elevator ride).
A fascinating debate about the role of Israel, Judaism and elevator pitches, has been taking place online of late.
It all started two weeks ago, during the much-discussed debate between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart, when the two were apparently asked the following question:
Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish State. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people. What would you say?
Putting aside the ridiculous, oft-repeated concept of a put-you-to-sleep-two-minute elevator pitch (you can get to the top of the CN Tower in 58 seconds; pitches should last 30 seconds max). The question, put in other words, was how do you answer, “Why be Jewish,” briefly? Going back to our original definition, they were asked how to concisely present, “Why be Jewish (and by extension, care about the Jewish people and state)?” covering all of its critical aspects in two minutes.
Gordis and Beinart dodged the question. They simply chose to hear a different question altogether. In their ears, the moderator was not asking for an answer to “why be Jewish?” He was asking, “Can ‘why be Jewish?’ be summarized in a few words or thoughts?” Gordis said no. He wouldn’t engage in this conversation at all:
There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing… Let’s spend months and years studying together and then we’ll begin to talk.
Surprising. But what I found even more surprising was that Beinart, the self-appointed representative of young American Jews, agreed. They both essentially answered no to the question they had heard (not that which was asked). Such a noble and complicated idea cannot be summarized, and we should resist attempts to water Judaism or Zionism down.
No, there’s no way to summarize the whole Torah in the time available. But there is plenty of time to suggest a course just down the street for would-be converts, or to list with pride some of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Jews and to suggest that there may be a connection between the Torah of the Jews and the ways of the Jews and then to invite the rude skeptic for a leisurely coffee… ‘No,’ I’d say, ‘I’m not going to go the ‘on one foot route,’ which is insulting. But neither am I going to tell you that because you were failed as a child, you’re lost forever.
LA Jewish Journal writer David Suissa chimes in:
Are Gordis and Beinart being too dismissive? Fein thinks so, and I very much agree with him. The sad state of Jewish education today is even more reason why Judaism can’t afford to be too dismissive or pessimistic. As Fein says, our approach should be that it’s never too late to try to light a Jewish spark.
Fein and Suissa are right, of course. The question was, “What is your elevator pitch?” Not, “Can an elevator pitch be formulated?” To have a discussion over whether complex and noble ideas (and ideals) can be watered down to sound bites is archaic. Consider the times we live in, when complex entities such as countries engage in branding, when presidential candidates can “water down” their agenda to one or two words (Change and Hope were much more than that, of course), and when technology significantly decreases the attention span of today’s students. In such times, we can’t afford not to speak about Judaism and Israel in two minutes.
Additionally, one could also argue that pitches, slogans, symbols and short, snappy stories are nothing new. Consider “A Land without a people for a people without a land,” Herzl’s “If you Will it, and the Tanach (supposedly divine revelation watered down into a collection of simple motifs, symbols and catchy narratives). Symbolism is the secret to Christianity’s victory over Paganism (and to a lesser degree, Islam and Judaism’s success too), and, in the end, what is nationalism if not a nation coming together around one common, simple narrative, a land and a symbol. Herzl wrote in 1895 to Baron Hirsch that flags are the only thing people will die for en masse.
What does Israel mean to you? How do you tell a brief story and make your Zionism relevant to other students on campus? What is your elevator pitch?
These are some of the questions we posed on a recent Shabbaton to The David Project Israel Fellows, an impressive group of students ending Masa Israel Journey gap-year programs in Israel and heading back to American college campuses.
Nobody had an answer, but we challenged them to start thinking in these terms; to develop a brief articulation of this entire world of meaning. Not because it will answer all of the questions other students have on campus. On the contrary; it will hopefully lead to more questions, to a follow up conversation over a cup of coffee.
So what would a pitch look like? Why care about Israel?
Here’s one attempt at an elevator pitch:
Were Israel just a state, the high cost it exacts might not be justified. But Israel is not just a state. It breathed life into the Jewish people at precisely the moment when the Jews might have given up. It gives possibility and meaning to a Jewish future. It enables the Jews to reenter the stage of history.
But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Let’s hope that (young American) students, in solidarity with their (liberal Israeli) counterparts, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.
Breathing life into the Jewish people? Uncomfortable Zionism? These are catch phrases, sound bites, parts of a 30-second elevator pitch on Zionism.
These are not my words, of course, but those of Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart in Saving Israel and The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, respectively. These don’t provide the full answers, but are just enough of a pitch to cover main ideas and lead to followup conversations and engagement.
Now, was that so hard?