MAKOM’s response to Jay Michaelson
Jay Michaelson wrote in these pages of his declining love for Israel. He referred to an approach of MAKOM – the Israel Engagement Network – when he described his fatigue with “hugging and wrestling”. Due to the intractable political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the rightward and orthodox drift of the population, he feels exhausted.
When I reflect on the admirable candor Jay showed in bringing his soul-searching on Israel to a public forum, I am struck by how rare it is: An engaged Jew acknowledging the sometimes painful complexity of an honest relationship with Israel. It would seem that Jay’s exhaustion, and that of others like him, emerges from this isolation.
We know well that Jay’s frustrations with Israel are shared, albeit for a multitude of different reasons, by many Israelis and many Jews of a variety of political and philosophical persuasions. Across the gamut, Jews are wrestling and hugging. And adults recognize that living the complexity of our world means that good does not come easy, that in oh so many arenas of human endeavor the quiet life is not yet accessible. This week Leonard Cohen performs in Israel. He sings of the USA: “I love the country but I can’t stand the scene”. If a Cohen can sing this about the States, why not about Israel too?
If some feel isolated by their exhaustion, then others are alienated by the defensive shields of communal concern for Israel. So what might a community look like that embraces a mature love of Israel?
Firstly, the Jewish community would support people to bring their heartfelt concerns about Israel to the Jewish salon. Our communities would encourage fellow Jews to express their deepest emotions and most demanding challenges in a Jewish space. If we neglect to offer this opportunity then we will assist in alienating them from the Jewish collective. Israel will end up being marginal to them, because we marginalize their concerns.
Second, we would all encounter a range of contemporary Jewish voices on the issues that concern us about Israel. There is a spectrum of thoughtful Jews in Israel and around the world that hold measured opinions, drawn from deep reflection. They hold views about the Land of Israel, Jewish identity, economic and social systems, Jewish religious and cultural streams, the public square, Palestinians, environmental issues…….. to name several. To encounter the thoughtful voices is to bypass the placards that shape much of Jewish debate today. To neglect them undermines a ready appreciation of the complex reality of Israel.
Third, when confronted by the issues that make the news headlines, our community would dig for illumination from the mountain of Jewish civilization that underlies much of what so moves us. Even as Israel was to a large extent created as a critique of Jewish existence, it is also a continuation of sorts within Jewish time, space, text and dreams. The plausibility structure of Jewish vitality – that which makes it inconceivable to do Jewish life well without the Jewish People, the Torah, festivals, prayer, study and social justice – this rich structure will include Israel. But not inevitably – Jews around the world do not perceive they live in Diaspora, still less in Exile, they live at home. The place of Israel for these people will emerge from a vivid, rich, contextual imagining of Jewish civilization and Jewish possibility.
Fourth, we will shift the conversation from talking about building a Jewish state, to creating a Jewish society. The critiques of the sovereign Jewish enterprise will be channeled to better Israel, not to batter her. Only in the last two decades did two remarkable facts coincide in the Jewish story: that Israel is strong – culturally, economically and militarily; and that 99% of the world’s Jews are living in conditions of freedom wherever they choose. With these new existential realities in place we can begin the hard task of realizing Jewish collective potential. And the questions beg: what should the Jewish People as a People do next? And what role can Israel play?
If this kind of communal environment emerges, we will have a Jewish world that courageously faces its challenges with Israel and beyond. In parallel, we will honestly appreciate the still, quiet voice of achievements and opportunities. The latter are no less a part of the reality and carry the potential to sustain us through exhaustion. We will be able to celebrate, commemorate, commiserate and co-operate.
Before we get to sit quietly under the vine and the fig tree, learning and teaching, schmoozing and soothing, we all of us have work to do. I hope that those who are exhausted take a deep breath, roll their sleeves back up, and return to the arena to merit the blessing of our ancestor Jacob, to be called Israel.
Yonatan Ariel is Executive Director of MAKOM.
This piece originally appeared in our Face2Face section, alongside Jay Michaelson’s How I’m losing my love for Israel.