Talking about Why Israel

January 8, 2012 by

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American Jewish organizations have, over the last decades, struck a Faustian bargain regarding Israel. In return for the façade of unity and to avoid controversy, we have organizationally either stayed silent about Israel or addressed it in only the most idyllic strokes.

As a result of this lack of investment, the American Jewish-Israel relationship has fallen on tough times, and Americans have lost the “why” of the State of Israel.

One need not exert oneself to demonstrate the Israeli government’s own lack of savvy toward American Jews — its recent offensive repatriation commercials do such a beautiful job on their own. However, we’re not doing much better in the States.

A month and a half ago, The Forward reported that staff, participants and alumni of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, a year-long social justice fellowship for Jews in their 20s, launched a petition protesting a Schusterman Foundation grant for a service trip to Israel. “A trip like this, organized by a social justice organization, helps normalize the oppression of Palestinians by drawing attention away from the daily abuses that they’re suffering,” said Michael Deheeger, the Avodah staff member who quit over the trip.

Not a ringing endorsement.

This particular brushfire is the symptom of a massive failure in Jewish leadership. What one must understand is that each organization involved in the controversy represents the best that today’s Jewish community has to offer. Avodah has trained some of the most talented and brightest of my colleagues and friends — the most passionate, the most dedicated (I am not an alumnus). The Schusterman Foundation funds and develops the most innovative and successful of contemporary communal initiatives (I have worked for Hillel and Moishe House, and am quite biased, thank you). These two are the cutting edge, yet a simple trip to Israel caused revolt. Something is wrong.

My colleague Rabbi Ethan Linden has written convincingly that what joins the young social justice organizations is their silence on Israel: “For years, programs like Avodah and [American Jewish World Service] have been attracting hordes of young people to their programs on two important (but importantly unspoken) conditions … [the second of which is] we won’t be talking about Israel.”

The dissenters themselves acknowledge this reality in their open letter: “As a domestic-focused service corps, Avodah has thus far refrained from addressing the potentially contentious issue of the conflict in Israel-Palestine.”

On the other hand, what links American funders and our old-guard institutions is their insistence that Israelis are still unified in their vision of a pioneering, kibbutznik, Zionist, enlightened ideal of the nation, and that American Jews are still unified by their strong connection to Israel.

Neither belief has been reality for at least 20 years.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, and therefore a failure of leadership. In both cases, American Jewish institutions traded engaging contemporary Israel for fleeting freedom from the problems of dissention. But the bargain bought them time at best, and the years without connection to the real Israel have taken their toll.

As a result, the content of contemporary connection to Israel is almost entirely political, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thereafter empty. What I mean is that to be engaged with Israel today, either one joins the right or the left, Stand With Us or J Street, or one is politically disengaged and indifferent.

However, a relationship that encompasses more than politics has somehow become petrified, speaking of the past generation. A senior colleague of mine used to debate Zionist philosophy as a teenager in Young Judea. There is little opportunity, or interest, for such today.

We do not possess a contemporary vocabulary for the importance of Israel.

The major reason given — a refuge from anti-Semitism — rings wrong in the ears of many Americans Jews, who feel safe and secure here. We do not know what our individual relationship to Israel should be: Financial supporter? Political lobbyist? Unified in support of? Critic of policies of? Prayer for in synagogue? Eventual maker of aliyah?

American Jews no longer possess an idea of Israel; we are left only with the politics of Israel.

This reality is a shame and a tragedy. In a time when Jewish religious, cultural, social and communal ideas are literally growing faster than Jews can keep up with them — we are in a Jewish renaissance — ideas about Israel have lagged sorely behind. This is because we have had no investment in them, not because they do not exist.

Such people as David Hartman have done the first work of a new Zionism, in which Israel is, as he calls it, Judaism moving through history. In a summation that does not do him justice, Israel is the grand experiment of Judaism. It is important, critical, because it is the only place where the totality of the religious, cultural, political and social ideas of Judaism and Jews are expressed through a body politic.

Israel is the only place in the world where Judaism is the civilization, and the ideals we claim to hold apply to a living country. For this reason, if for no other, Israel is of central importance to anyone who loves Judaism.

However, we have not carried this ball forward in our organizations. It is incumbent upon us to make the idea of Israel — the why of its importance, the debate as to its future — a regular part of what we do and a noticeable chunk of our communal time.

This process will be messy and contentious — if Israelis are divided as to Israel’s future, it’s ridiculous to expect Americans not to be. There will be no avoiding politics — that’s like talking football without mentioning tackling. But politics should be folded into the larger context — why Israel means something in the first place.

The good news is that making space for the why of Israel is an eminently achievable goal. Its accomplishment is simply a matter of some communal will and the patience to ride out the first wave of obnoxious comments. In this case, sowing in tears will mean reaping in joy, so let’s get to work.


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