September 23, 2018

Israel Is a Country, Not a Cause

If you’re like a lot of American Jews, you’ve gotten pretty worked up lately about the Nation- State Law, the questioning of Peter Beinart at Ben Gurion Airport or the LGBT protests about surrogacy. Before that, there was the Kotel controversy, and the Jerusalem embassy, and before that the Iran deal—and so on.

There is no country on earth whose domestic and foreign policy grips American Jewish attention like Israel. Because it’s the “Jewish state,” and American Jews care.

But there’s something wrong with all this caring.

In America, where many Jews don’t know Hebrew, arguments about Israel tend to be shallow and shrill mirrors of debates in Israel—after all, what do people use to interpret the news other than what Israeli right-wingers and left-wingers are telling them?

This kind of second-level arguing, however, is usually a waste of breath.

Why? In part, because it’s stripped of context. Israelis shout when they argue, even when they write. A writer from Haaretz can declare the rise of Israeli fascism, and another one from Israel Hayom can scream about treason against the nation, yet it’s a small Middle-Eastern country—when they’re done shouting, they still go to the same bars, the same family meals, listen to the same radio news, or run into each other at the gym or the boardroom.

A columnist for Haaretz once told me: “Of course I overstate the threats to Israeli democracy. If I don’t scream, nobody will hear me.”

Another reason American Jews are so breathless is that they feel powerless to affect the country they care about. They don’t vote in Israel, they don’t participate in the Hebrew-language policy debates, and no matter how much they feel Israeli decisions might affect them, they really don’t, at least not in the way they affect Israeli voters and taxpayers.

In fact, the disconnect between American-Jewish adrenaline about Israel and the actual, objective success and stability of the country is so enormous that it forces us to ask: What are you really worried about, American Jews?

The short answer, the only one that makes any sense, is this: It’s about you.

American Jews want desperately to care about something Jewish, but don’t really want to face the fact that their kids aren’t continuing the identity, that they have lost a sense of belonging, that their synagogue-based communities are dissolving into infinite WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups and political action committees, that their kids are, in some cases, getting blamed on campus for things that Israel is accused of doing.

Meanwhile, over here in Israel, something totally different is happening. Under the radar, Israel has turned itself from a cultural backwater into something vibrant, edgy, and increasingly influential. Remember Start-Up Nation? Now it’s happening with culture: Israelis are changing the face not just of hi-tech but of music, architecture, film and TV, of design and art and dance.

When will American Jews notice? When will they tell their kids: Go to Israel because something amazing is happening there. Forget Left and Right—it’s not important. Forget BDS—it doesn’t matter. A nation’s creative spirit, its deep Jewish soul, its language and culture—all these are much bigger and more important for you than anything you read in the news.

This is not about Whataboutism or going “Beyond the Conflict.” Israelis don’t live in the conflict and don’t need to go beyond it. Israeli reality is mainly about what everybody else’s reality is about: Work, family, vacation, entertainment. In short, life.

But it’s also a different reality—an incredible life, full of creative energy, new thoughts, big gambles and brass tacks. This can be a lot more interesting to young American Jews looking for something to anchor their identity in than all the endless political sword-fighting.

The point is: A government is not its people. For Americans to get worked up about Israel based on who is in power makes no more sense than for Israelis to decide whether to visit or do business with the United States based on the latest tweets coming out of the White House.

Instead of showing your caring by reacting to headlines, there’s a different way to care—a much healthier way, one that will take you farther and bring your kids closer: Find the Israel that adds value to your life.

Visit. Learn the language. Meet the people. Listen to the music. Drink the wine. Enjoy the country. Treat it like an exotic foreign land, not a rotting shack in your backyard that used to be pretty but now is full of dung. Israel is not rotting, it has only gotten more beautiful, and it’s frankly not your backyard.

In an important essay last year, David Hazony made this point about “Israeliness” as a key to the Jewish future in America. He ended by saying that the path to Israel means “rediscovering Israel as a country, not just a cause, and yourself as someone searching rather than acting out of certainty…  to see the Israeli other not as a threat but as a resource for your own journey.”

Bring to Israel your sense of exploration and wonder rather than anxiety and anger, and you’ll be shocked how much more it has to offer. Your kids will be grateful, too.


Adam Bellos is the founder of The Israel Innovation Fund, whose goal is to create culturally relevant initiatives that showcase Israel’s diverse culture. Its flagship program, Wine on the Vine, enables people to support Israel’s wine industry by planting grapevines and supporting charities.