Israel needs fans, not cheerleaders
As the New England Patriots qualified for yet another Super Bowl, my thoughts went to my late father-in-law, Harvey Kirstein, z”l, a huge fan of the team and season-ticket holder who died tragically before they became successful and never saw any of their triumphs.
It was Harvey who took me to my first game on my first trip to the United States, which was also my honeymoon. Having grown up in Britain and lived in Israel, I had no idea what was happening on the field. But I was fascinated by the cheerleaders, another example of American popular culture that was new and unfamiliar as well as strangely alluring. No matter what was happening on the field, they pranced and danced, shaking their sculpted bods and waving their pom-poms, the same plastic smiles on their perfect faces.
It prompted some thoughts on the difference between fans and cheerleaders. Whereas cheerleaders do their thing regardless of the success of the team or lack thereof, fans are much more passionately engaged. They want the team to do well — but they do not spare their opinions, thoughts and criticisms when the team is doing badly. Do we need a new quarterback? Is the head coach up to the job? Are we drafting the right players? Do we have the right game plan?
This difference between engaged fans and cheerleaders is at the center of a debate within the American-Jewish community between those who would have us play the part of cheerleaders and those who would have us be fans.
For much of my life, I was a cheerleader. I didn’t want to hear anything negative about Israel. After all, I reasoned, it has enough critics in the world. It didn’t need one more.
This changed somewhat in the eight years I actually lived in Israel, including the period when I served in the Israel Defense Forces. Living there gave me permission to be as critical as I liked and to take full part in the democratic life of the country. After all, the decisions of the government affected every aspect of my life — including my security and that of my family. But once I returned to the Diaspora, my previous attitude reasserted itself.
For two years, during which I worked for an organization called The Israel Project, this “hear no evil” attitude became the watchword of my professional work. My job was to work with foreign journalists, providing them with access to Israeli sources and information. But whenever the subject of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or its settlement-building arose, my only recourse was to try to talk about something else. As a cheerleader, I had nothing useful to contribute.
Instead, I would try to divert attention to Israel’s high-tech industry, its growing wine industry, alternative energy programs, water purification plants and drip agriculture technology, as well as its medical advances. Almost every day, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sends out information on these topics as well as Tel Aviv nightlife, pop music, the booming gay scene — anything other than settlements and the occupation.
Eventually, I reached a point when I no longer wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to engage Israel fully, with my heart and my mind, instead of kicking up my legs and waving a pom-pom. I concluded that this would be healthier and more honest for me and healthier for Israel as well. Hence, my decision to join J Street.
Going back to the world of professional football, there is another analogy that may be apt. In Washington, D.C., fans are quite engaged — but need to be much more engaged — in the controversy surrounding the name of the local franchise. Many Native Americans and others have spoken out against the name “Redskins,” but the team owner is not listening. I predict that he will only start listening when a critical mass of the team’s fans — those who fill stadium seats, buy season tickets and team gear — start speaking out against the name.
So it is with Israel. As fans, we have a privileged position. We have a chance to be listened to in a way that uninvolved observers never would be. We must express our unconditional love for Israel. But we must also speak out about the direction in which the country is headed.
Do we need a new quarterback, a new manager, a new game plan? Fans can debate this. Cheerleaders cannot. This government has failed to pursue peace with the same conviction that it has pursued settlements. The Palestinians also share some of the blame for the failure of peace talks, but the fact remains that if the occupation continues, there will soon be a Palestinian majority in the land that Israel controls. At that point, Israel will have to choose between remaining a Jewish homeland and remaining a democracy.
When a team has a bad season, or a series of bad seasons, some fans get discouraged and walk away. The cheerleaders continue prancing. But it is those fans who stay — and who vocalize their feelings — that constitute the heart and soul of the franchise.
I want to be in that number.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.