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Hillel Ben Sasson on Progressive Leadership and Jewish Identity in Israel and the Diaspora

Grace Gleason and Hillel Ben Sasson in Jerusalem on June 1, 2017.
In the past several months, the US has seen a wave of progressive victories in local elections from New York to Jackson, Mississippi. At a time when many people are for the first time pouring their energy into building local electoral power in the US, Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson is devoting himself to a similar model of building a progressive political base from the ground up in Israel through the Academy for Liberal Israel, a leadership institute he founded in 2016. Ben Sasson has also dedicated much of his recent academic research to the relationship between Israel, the Diaspora and Jewish identity, and currently serves as a visiting professor in Israel Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In his June 1, 2017 interview with AJPA in Jerusalem, Ben Sasson spoke about the misconceptions and identity politics that impact the ability of progressive Israeli and Diaspora Jews to effectively collaborate in their activism.

To frame this problem of a lack of progressive alliances between the two groups, Ben Sasson expressed frustration about the power that many American Jews wield in Israel without being connected to efforts on the ground. He emphasized how American Jews “construct an image of Israel” that we can fit into our own identity, neglecting to interact with Israelis, politics, or truths that don’t match our image. He personally believes that there is a tendency of both rightwing and leftwing American Jews to see Israel not as a polity but as a place to express our personal values. “You think this is your moral Disneyland,” he said.

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