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The Case for Pluralism

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

This week, Mazkir Joe Woolf makes the case for pluralism. Joe outlines where pluralism's real values begin to take root, and explores what could be possible if we could engage more proactively with our pluralist values.


Often, pluralism is used as a means to an end, a marketing technique, or a gimmick. It makes us scared to take sides or explore political opinions, or it results in us compromising our beliefs. In 1993, FZY decided to formally adopt pluralism as a central ideology. Before that, it was always there, but not explicitly something that members would talk about. The movement believed in discussion and debate from all different standpoints and none, but until 1993, pluralism wasn’t viewed as a value in its own right.

If you ask any FZY member, past or present, ‘how do you see pluralism in your movement?’ the answer would most likely be: ‘we offer three services on Shabbat’. And each year at Veida, delegates raise important questions about the legitimacy and the practicality of the three-service model. Or, members ask: ‘can we force people to ensure there is a minyan at the Orthodox service and Reform Service before filling the Alternative Service?’

Pluralism is difficult to articulate as a positive ideology. Over the last few years, I have come to see pluralism as a plethora of things. Some of these are very superficial, and I think it is ok to be honest with ourselves about it, but also some of these are profound, enabling FZY as a movement to effectively strive towards our vision.


Marketing and Recruitment

Pluralism has allowed FZY to reach out to people who previously would not have wanted to engage because they for so long had only viewed Israel and Judaism with blinkers

Firstly, let’s get it out the way. Pluralism helps FZY attract all kinds of people; it’s a big part of the reason that FZY has been the centre of the young Jewish community for so long. Pluralism enables those who identify with one type of Judaism or Zionism – or indeed no type – to come and interact with concepts that they may connect with. What this does is a few things: it means that our programmes have been full of amazing chanichim and madrichim that all believe in and care about different elements of their Jewish and Zionist identity. It also creates a space that means those that don’t want to interact on a profound level with these identities can come and still have a meaningful experience. Options are offered to all, but nothing is forced upon anyone. Pluralism has allowed FZY to reach out to people who previously would not have wanted to engage because they for so long had only viewed Israel and Judaism with blinkers, a right or wrong that maybe didn’t fit into their personal identity. On a very simple level: pluralism has enabled FZY to be a home to all, and for all in that home to find their place at the table.


The Framework of our Ideology

There is no debating when it comes to FZY: we are a ‘Jewish, Zionist Youth Movement’ similar to many Youth movements in the UK, but with FZY there is a specific preface to this ideology. This is something all movements have. For example: Habonimis a Socialist Zionist youth movementand RSYis a Reform Jewish youth movement.

For FZY however, the caveat in front of our Judaism and Zionism is: pluralism. FZY is a ‘pluralist Jewish and pluralist Zionist youth movement’. Pluralism is a framework for us to view of Judaism and Zionism, and develop our Jewish and Zionist identities.

This framework allows us to create an environment that will help us to best achieve our vision. Because in order to do this, we can’t be seeing our orthodoxy or liberal Judaism as the only method, and we can’t see our Ahad Ha’am and Ze’ev Jabotinsky with rose tinted glasses; we need to invite, understand and accept all, and celebrate what it means to be a collective, so that we can most effectively follow the road towards our vision.


Inviting, Accepting, Understanding and Celebrating

These four words create a sort of poetry to pluralism, cute though it may seem. They actually help to frame pluralism and the importance of it as an ideology in its own right. Now, by re-framing Pluralism, we as a movement can ensure that we are truly operating a pluralist environment by:

1) inviting people of all denominational backgrounds and political beliefs into our space;

2) encouraging participants to accept one another, even if they disagree on certain values;

3) creating a culture where we seek to understand other members’ political beliefs, cultural backgrounds and religious practices; and

4) celebrating the diversity that our members represent, including a range of Jewish and Zionist identities.


Politics, Culture, Religion

As mentioned, a lot of the time, our members talk about how pluralism refers to the way we do our religious practices in the movement. That’s great – but it can’t stop there. Pluralism is a principle that enables us to grow and develop as individuals and as a collective. So when programming, as Madrichim – as educators – it is important that we see pluralism as a much larger beast. Having different political viewpoints is essential, experiencing different Jewish cultures and traditions is key; and when it comes to religion, I believe that FZY thrives when we explore why different religious practices operate in different ways, trying to appreciate how different streams of Judaism came to exist and thrive. This is where FZY is really making the large strides forward towards our vision.

N.B. this by no means means that you have to compromise your beliefs (a greatly contested topic). It’s our job to provide the space for learning and interacting without doing so.


The Risk of Pluralist Education

For our madrichim and movement teams, pluralism has been a factor which has made us afraid to explore political opinions or take sides. It has sometimes meant that we have been afraid to delve into something controversial for fear of offending someone else. That doesn’t help us; in fact doing this can hinder us as a movement from taking any direction at all.

Because I truly believe pluralism is the greatest gift our movement has.

Most recently, at Veida 5779 a motion was proposed to: ‘affirm our commitment to a two state solution.’Though this is something that many of our members believe in, the main reason this motion did not pass was because ‘we are pluralist’ and ‘we can’t take such a political standpoint.’ This to me was wrong, not necessarily the fact it didn’t pass, but the reasons for why it didn’t pass. What it really made me think was – wow – maybe we need to educate better on all the possible solutions to the conflict, and then reconvene, maybe at the next Veida and take a stance. After all, how can we be influential in achieving one element of our vision – ‘living in peace, in the Land of Israel’– if we don’t have an opinion on how we see this peace being reached?

Over the past two years as Mazkir, this is something that I have been grappling with. If I can pass one lesson on to the future of the movement it would be:

Don’t be afraid to engage with all sides, take a stand, but make sure the members understand, even if they don’t fully agree. Views of the movement can change over time, and that’s ok - new information may come to light, a new way of doing things may be introduced, or simply the membership just wants to try something new. Look at the movement journey – do we give appropriate time to different modern, historical, Israeli, British or other political viewpoints? Do we explore all different Jewish cultures – even if our movement’s makeup is majority Ashkenazi? Are we providing an understanding of our religious practices, alongside a practical space for these practices to operate?

Because I truly believe pluralism is the greatest gift our movement has. If used correctly, pluralism will eventually help us play a part in achieving our vision as a youth movement, for Israel and the Jewish people. But it is also one of the biggest challenges that our movement faces in achieving our vision, if not used effectively.


The Vision

Only when we are inviting, accepting, understanding and celebrating the differences and similarities between our political, cultural and religious views can we truly say that pluralism is an ideology that strengthens us as individuals. Doing this means that we are engaging on a real level with concepts and viewpoints that will help inform our individual identities, and allow us to ‘argue for the sake of heaven’, rather than be formulated to believe in one way about certain things.

Ultimately this is a principle central to achieving our vision as a movement, and if done right, an ideology that allows FZY as a movement to take steps in the right direction of achieving our vision.

Only if and when this is happening can FZY say that pluralism has earned itself a place in our movement. Only then will we be able to fulfil our potential impact, both in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora.

Joe Woolf


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