Tent or Tank?

July 13, 2011 by

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Israel’s complexity, and the nature of the world’s response to it, is in danger of defeating us as a community.

How can we say when a fiery piece of theater is “anti-Semitic”, and when it is simply “courageous and challenging”? How do we know when a documentary film is “uplifting and inspirational”, and when “white-washing propaganda”? Where can we identify the dangerous enemy of Israel, and where the confused kid who could do with reading a book or two? Where the starry-eyed supporter of all things blue-and-white, and where the McCarthyite in the making?

It seems that throughout the Jewish world the nuances are becoming dangerously blurred, while the discourse has grown ever polarized. Makom is based in the heart of the Jewish Agency for Israel, working carefully at inspiring intelligent and complex learning about the place of Israel in Jewish life. As something of an ideological hybrid (some have called us “a government-funded underground”), we have amassed a large amount of experience in working with integrity while avoiding head-on conflicts.

Involved in education as we are, our team is delighted to recognize how Israel evokes the heat and commitment of conflict. Yet our fear is that the current arguments about Israel in the Jewish community are what John Dewey might call “mis-educative”, since they end up putting off people from ever touching the subject again!

We would like to suggest a way forward.

It may be that we have moved a little too far from the source. It may be that some of our arguments are more about Western values refracted through Israel, rather than about Israel itself. Our approach would be to look to what Israel says about itself, and aspires to be.

When the State was established, the penultimate line of the Hatikva anthem was rewritten. Instead of referring to a return to the land of our fathers, the line was altered to define our hope of two thousand years: “To be a free people in our land”.

It may be that this broad, generative, dialogical definition of our hope for Israel is far more useful to us than the seemingly-scientific language of “a Jewish and Democratic State”. The latter construction hints at paradox, feels painfully particularistic, and makes no reference to place. By contrast, the aspiration to be a free people in our land is lyrical, inviting, and most importantly: universal. What else was behind the world’s excitement at the Egyptian uprising, for example, if not the sight of Egyptians fighting to be a free people in their land?

Applied to Jews and Israel there is, woven into the phrase, a shared assumption (To be) and three-fold wish (Free People in Our Land):

To be – that the Jewish People know what it is to be threatened with destruction, and our continued existence is both a miracle and a value. At the same time, after millennia of struggling not just to establish but to justify our existence, might we not deserve the chance just “to be”?

Free – for Israel to be a place that allow Jews to be free to renew, to experiment and even to rebel, while at the same time free to take responsibility for its decisions.

People – for the Israel to be the place where the Jews can redevelop their nature as a collective: broader than a religion, richer than an ethnic tendency, and connected to Jews around the world.

In Our Land – for Israel to exist not in Uganda nor in Patagonia or Alaska, but in the area of land referred to in the bible and in our prayers. In this way our People may have its own landscape from which to engage with the world.

We would suggest that if one were looking for a litmus test of “who is pro-Israel”, asking someone’s attitude to this three-fold aspiration for the State of Israel would be extremely revealing and useful. Am Chofshi B’Artzenu (Free People In Our Land) should be the three pillars that define our communal “tent”, whose “roof” would be the assumption of our continued existence as a fundamental value – Lihiyot (To be).

All stripes of Israel-supporter can agree with this statement – and argue within it. We may not agree on the exact borders of “our Land”, nor may we agree to what extent we must share this land with others who also view it as “theirs”, but we do agree that the Jews’ State must be in that once-biblical Middle Eastern neck of the woods.

We may not agree exactly on our definition of who is a Jew, nor may we agree on our interpretation of halacha or its applications, but we can agree that the Jews are a people and as such deserve their own opportunity for self-determination.

Our understandings of “free” will be nuanced, too. Some Zionists cannot understand the liberation movement of the Jewish people without democracy: How can we free the Jewish People to control its own destiny without freeing the Jewish person to do the same? Others will engage in a heated discussion about the morality of enjoying freedom while restricting the freedom of others, while their interlocutors will argue how our freedom from terror should be our most important guide.

What we are pointing out is that this “holding form” for agreement is no strait-jacket. We would still have plenty of room to argue within this formulation. We are of course arguing for the parameters of a communal “tent” rather than a communal “tank”.

A tent is not a tank. In a tank we can be safe, we can fight back against our enemies, but life is pretty cramped and miserable inside a tank, everyone must follow orders, only the military exists, and everyone outside is a mortal enemy. Even the Reut Institute warns that this tank-like attitude “fails to differentiate between critics and delegitimizers, and thus, pushes the former into the arms of the latter.”

A tent allows us room to talk freely among ourselves, allows space to have fun occasionally(!) and appreciate that not all is a military compound, and – perhaps equally significant – can empower us to engage more confidently with those not inside the tent.

Like the tent of Abraham, the sides of this tent can be open for dialogue with those who sit outside it. There is clearly no point arguing the complexities of Israel’s immigration policy with someone who does not accept that Israel should have the right to decide any immigration policy! There is nothing to be gained discussing the desired borders of the State of Israel with someone who does not agree that the Jews have a connection to the land in the first place.

Yet we can debate the basics: Why we regard the Jews as a people, the rights of a people to freedom, and our connection to the land. As long as we keep our eyes on this three-pillared structure to our tent, instead of turning our backs to critics, we can learn to face them.

At the same time, if we reject the constrictions of a communal “tank”, and accept how “Am Chofshi b’Artzenu” defines the extent of our open-sided tent, we must not shirk the work to be done inside the tent. Within Israel and within the Jewish world we must talk and work at the areas where these different values clash, where our interpretations of these values clash, and where the connection between the values can be strengthened.

The way the Ketura solar panel fields will feed into the world’s first national network of electric cars, while also offering a fresh solution to the issue of Bedouin land rights, can serve as an example of how being a Free People In Our Land can better the world. On the other hand, Israeli policies towards African refugees, or women at the Kotel, indicate that not all will be harmonious inside the tent.

This three-pillared tent will allow us to differentiate between three kinds of people we are in danger of conflating. We will better defend ourselves against the malicious rejecter of Jewish rights in Israel, we will converse more fruitfully with principled dissenters, and we will be free to work with those who live inside this fascinating and compelling tent of Israel.

An edited version of this piece first appeared in www.jpost.com


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