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Ariel Beery

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The Flowering of Creativity: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

Posted: 04/26/2012 10:19 am

The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

In a 2008 talk called Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus, the media researcher and theorist Clay Shirky observed that humanity in developed countries such as the United States and Europe has undergone a revolution in the amount of leisure time now available. The largest new investment of their time? Television. Two hundred billion human hours worth in the United States alone, each year.

But the remarkable news of the past decade is that while leisure time is increasing, the number of hours spent by younger people passively watching television has started to decline. Where is their time going? To creative pursuits fueled by the ubiquity of digital access points to community.

Much like the youth who, at the turn of the industrial revolution, escaped to the forests to build cities of their own, today's youth are growing up in a wholly new world. Because native social structures do not exist in this new world, they are forced to create their own structures through the application of creative expression. Somewhat like youth movements past, but aided and transformed by the instantaneous globalism of the 21st century, creatively driven individuals are building these new social structures in partnership with others spread far from their particular corner of the earth. Together they have posted more photos online than had previously ever been taken, built encyclopedias explaining everything from medical conditions to popular television shows, and contributed to open source software projects that do everything from mapping the cosmos to ranking local businesses for all to see. As young people develop their own frameworks, they also develop an appetite for creation. More and more, they seek creative fulfillment through their work.

What would Ahad Ha'am say about this burst of creativity? He would recognize that a great flowering of human creativity is in the works, and celebrate its potential to better the world. But he would also remind us that there is particular value in our tradition's depth that could provide its own blessing to humanity. So much value exists in our Jewish tradition, he would probably say, that we dare not allow it to be overwhelmed by the new global partnerships and structures. As Ahad Ha'am reminds us in his 1902 essay, "A Spiritual Revival," "greatness is a matter not of breadth only, but of depth."

Unfortunately, the current consumer-focused creativity has flooded the Internet. Videos of cats flushing the toilet or lip syncing to pop-songs do not further human civilization. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude from such shallowness that the youth are not interested in depth of expression informed by history. Many of our youth simply know no better, because our educational system has yet to catch up with their practice of knowledge acquisition and communication. Those of the youth who have access to traditional channels to knowledge take every advantage they can. University classes on ethnomusicology and distinct cultural traditions flourish; Jewish studies is becoming ever more popular a subject. Those youth who are provided tools to access our tradition use those tools to inform their newly empowered creativity. Unfortunately, access to these tools is limited. Efforts such as the Bible Raps Nation project -- which teaches youth in supplementary Hebrew schools and summer camps to learn a biblical story and prepare a music video on its basis -- have shown that when youth are given access to the texts and stories of our tradition, they are able to weave out of them compelling examples of self-expression.

We need more efforts such as these to unlock the store of content in our tradition. Here is the Zionist movement's next goal: to take the lead in informing our People's self-expression in art and politics and business alike, so as to pioneer a path toward a more fulfilling collective life.

Instead of focusing inward on issues of Israeli foreign policy and security, a creative Zionist movement should push the Jewish People to contribute our particular perspective to the global conversation in all fields of life. A properly functioning state becomes a laboratory where the values and vision of our tradition are tested to bring out Jewish perspectives on the issues of the day. For example: The Jewish contribution to the conversation on universal healthcare is limited when the Jewish People has no healthcare system of its own to experiment with. Around the world, Jews contribute to the conversation on healthcare, but their ideas are mixed and mashed into compromises that take into account various paradigms and value systems. With the existence of a Jewish state, we could, potentially, create a healthcare system that fully reflects our values, one that makes a statement to the world about our respect for the sick, our care for the widow and the orphan.

We've not done this, however. The Zionist movement that has brought the State of Israel to its current point of development was too interested in becoming a state like all others, a goy k'chol hagoyim, and not sufficiently interested in unleashing Jewish creativity. A creative Zionist movement can change that. If the healthcare system of the Jewish state were to be seen as a global experiment in creating a healthcare system that exemplifies Jewish values and enacts a vision for human care drawing from our sources and our experience, the Jewish People will have demonstrated that it has what to contribute to the plight of humanity as a whole.

Opening up the institutions and processes of the Jewish People to the intellectual and professional contributions of Jewish people could be mission of the Zionist movement in our times. By increasing transparency of our national institutions, and building channels for participation and collective action, the Zionist movement could revive the chalutzic (pioneering) spirit that inspired Jews young and old from around the world to make their way to the Land of Israel and build prototypes of the model society. The difference between then and now is that the ubiquity of digital access points can enable global participation in the national project as never before. In remembering that the Jewish State is a vehicle for the Jewish People to express their vision in the world, we reaffirm the shared ownership of the State and its institutions, as well as the shared responsibility. A Zionist movement focused on harnessing Jewish creativity through such an open-source, values-laden approach to the collective institutions of the worldwide Jewish community could unlock the potential of the Jewish tradition and have a marked impact on its own sovereign expression. And in so doing, it could serve as an example to other dispersed collectives around the world who also believe they have what to contribute to the future of humankind.

Ariel Beery is the co-founder and global CEO of the PresenTense Group, a volunteer-based organization that works with communities around the world to leverage local volunteer talents and passions to support communal change driven by social entrepreneurs. More than anything else, however, he is a Chanich and Madrich in Hashomer Hatzair.

 
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