Hartman Aiming to 'Reshape the Israeli Narrative' With Video Series

The two-year-old project, featuring video discs, source materials and a website, was made possible by an anonymous donor.

Mordechai I. Twersky
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Mordechai I. Twersky

A roving camera pans two presenters deeply engaged in a discussion about the crises confronting Judaism and Israel.

"Do we need to have more than one narrative?" asks the questioner, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.

"We have one [Biblical] text and so many interpretations to it," replies Dr. Tal Becker, a fellow at the institute. "Shouldn't that apply to the way we look at Israel as well?"

Becker's reply - and the candid assessments of a number of his colleagues - cram the institute's slickly produced "iEngage" - or, "Engaging Israel: Foundations for a New Relationship" - video series, with food for thought that surely not all will be prepared to digest.

With thick and complex topics spanning "Religion and Peoplehood," "Power and Powerlessness," "War and Occupation," and "Morality on the Battlefield," it's no wonder the series' nine video discs don't easily emerge from their tightly fitted sleeves.

"We wanted to reshape the narrative about Israel," said Hartman, 54, whose father, the renowned rabbi and Jewish philosopher David Hartman, founded the institute in 1976. "The relationship with Israel revolves primarily around a death narrative: 'World Jewry's dying, or Israel's dying.' We want to create a new space around various ideas, values and principles that will be part of a living Jewish discourse."

In another video segment, the New York-born Hartman asks his discussion partner to respond to concerns that multiple rabbinates for Judaism's various streams would wreak havoc in Israel.

"The fear, first of all, is the success of the terrorizing of the Israeli population by the Orthodox rabbinate," replies a firm but smiling Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, institute vice president and director of its rabbinic leadership programs. "We know that Judaism, certainly in the modern era, can live with multiple rabbinic courts."

The two-year-old project, featuring video discs, source materials and a website, was made possible by an anonymous donor with a gift "of a couple of million dollars," according to Hartman. It is used in synagogues and schools in 100 Jewish communities in North America, he said.

Next week, the institute plans to begin filming what it's calling "iEngage 2.0." A parallel project, "ixEngage," now in development, aims to address "the challenge that Christians face in engaging with Israel," said Hartman.

That said, for much of the series, Hartman is seen engaging members of his own institute, with the exception of several leading professors, including the renowned Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri.

"The goal of this series wasn't to debate, and it's not about true-false positions," Hartman told Anglo File, noting that representatives of Judaism's other streams will find their way into future discussions. "This is about creating a conversation."

Israelis take part in Nakba Day events at Tel Aviv University. A new Jewish video series looks at Israel from a different perspective.Credit: Alon Ron
Rabbi Donniel HartmanCredit: Yitzchak Wolf

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