June 17, 2019

Can We Separate the Soul of Israel From Its Politics?

Several of my close friends’ children who are in their late 20s and early 30s — graduates of day schools; alums of Jewish camps, Israel trips and junior years abroad at Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities; former Birthright trip leaders; recipients of every scholarship, funded journey, fellowship and grant the Jewish community bestowed upon Generation Next — claim they will not set foot in Israel because of the Palestinian conflict, the occupation and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. My friends, who are very committed Zionists, are sad that their Jewishly educated children have become self-imposed exiles from the Zionist project, but they remain supportive of their children and the choices those children have made. 

I, too, am a liberal thinker who believes in a two-state solution and who has great difficulty with Netanyahu’s policies. I’m also sad. But I’m sad because my friends express so much understanding for and acceptance of this naive and dangerous attitude held by their adult offspring, many of whom are now raising children of their own. 

Yes, I said “naive.” Not naive politically, as my more conservative and right-wing friends like to say about my own leanings, but naive about Israel and who the country really is. 

Around our dining room table recently, when one of these friends was relating his married daughter’s position, I gave him an example of discussions I had with my Muslim students at USC. I explained that it was the same discussion I would have with my three adult children if they voiced the protest his daughter did. 

I have a close relationship with the Muslim students. A few years ago, I was the faculty representative for both the Israeli students and the Muslim students on campus. I even brought together the leaders of their respective organizations for brunch at my home. And when my father died two years ago, Muslim students came as a group to shivah one night, knowing the tradition and the right thing to do. These students knew I was a proud activist Jew and Zionist who often traveled to Israel. So every semester, a few of them, comfortable with the openness we shared, would ask how I could be such an ardent Zionist? 

“Israel and the conflict are filled with paradoxes. This conflict is exceedingly complex, rooted in and nuanced with histories, events, spiritualities, rights, wrongs, cultures, mysticisms, prayers, gods, wars, terrors, truths, lies, value systems, lands, territory, powers, money, business, hates and loves.”

I tell them that, aside from recognizing and sympathizing with their plight — understanding how the conflict has displaced them, the injustice they have suffered — my Zionist philosophy is only one of the faces of Israel. I explain that there are a whole lot of other faces of the country and Zionism that have absolutely no relationship to the conflict and exist completely independent of it. In other words, I say to them, as hard as this is to articulate, there is much that I cling to in Israel that is not all about you folks.

There is the ingathering of the Jewish people from the four corners of the Earth that has brought us back together as a family and a people, even though we are not always so good to one another. There is the re-creation of our language, which has led to a common tongue between Jews in Israel and all over the world, and hence, a new culture of music, poetry, literature, dance, food and other manifestations that we all relate to and embrace. There is the creative and business output of the country in so many different arenas. The conflict is aside from all this Jewish progress that has been made and is thrilling to us. I know they feel, how can anything in Israel not relate to them when all these accomplishments have been built upon what they consider to be the land and country that was stolen from them.

Lastly, I tell them that, as a Jew, I consider myself indigenous to the Middle East, having been taught since birth that our history and holy books tell us we are connected to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, and our liturgy and ceremonies have always talked of our return to that land. Further, I tell them that each time they invite me to their weddings, holidays, Ramadan meals and rituals, and Id festivals, I can see a connective tissue between our traditions that indeed speaks to me of how we are related to one another, emerging from the same place. 

I know all of this, when stirred together, is a great moral paradox. But nothing is black and white, and life is filled with paradoxes we have to learn to balance. When we don’t balance them, we become extremists of either right or left. And for liberals of any stripe, extremism is dangerous. 

Israel and the conflict are filled with paradoxes. This conflict is exceedingly complex, rooted in and nuanced with histories, events, spiritualities, rights, wrongs, cultures, mysticisms, prayers, gods, wars, terrors, truths, lies, value systems, lands, territory, powers, money, business, hates and loves. For anyone — including the new generation, the media, the universities and the politicians — to draw black-and-white conclusions and believe that if Israel or the Palestinians would just do “this” (whichever “this” that may be) and these deeply rooted problems would be solved, demonstrates a lack of both knowledge and the ability to deal with complexity, paradox and balance.

I ask my friends, “Are your children going to view the conflict as black and white, and hence alienate themselves from this extraordinary Jewish progress, which goes beyond anything produced in the Jewish Diaspora in thousands of years? Can they not handle life’s paradoxes? Can they not balance? Are they encouraging leftist extremism? Is their view not a naive view of the totality of Israel?” The conflict is not the only face of the country. 

I further point out that Israel has seen a proliferation of dynamic and creative social justice organizations filled with great young people committed to building a more just society. Do my friends’ children want to telegraph to these social justice activists that they don’t support their efforts and that, because the activists live in Israel, their children won’t come and work in the country with them? 

Of course, I have a bias. I relate significantly to the life in Israel. For me, Israel is an intensely riveting country — its people; its challenges; its achievements; its many cultures, including its constantly evolving Hebrew culture; its Middle Eastern atmosphere; its struggle to create an identity; its streets, markets, cafes, restaurants and festivals; its business and nonprofit sectors; its hot-and-cold relationship to Judaism as we Americans like to define it; the depth, texture and intimacy the country breeds in its familial and social relationships; its fragile democracy; and yes, even its conflict with the Palestinians and its proximity to the Arab world. Most interesting to me is when Judaism meets Israelism in all its permutations; when the constructs that Diaspora Jews brought to the country are thrown into the air and come apart, with some disappearing but with all of the remaining influences re-forming as something totally different and, for me, far more expansive. I find all of it more dynamic and engaging than anything we are building as a tiny minority Jewish community in the United States. 

My perspective on Israel doesn’t mean that I don’t find America intensely dynamic, interesting and engaging. I do. But that’s all of America, beyond its Jewish community. 

Three events I attended — two in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem — crystallized my understanding of Israel’s evolving and thrilling Jewish identity. They are like three pinpoints on a big map: 

The first event was an evening in 2013 at the Tel Aviv Opera House for the 65th anniversary of Israel’s renowned Batsheva Dance Company. Batsheva’s then-artistic director, Ohad Naharin, one of the most influential choreographers of modern dance in the world today, presented onstage his piece “Echad Mi Yodea.” Based on traditional Jewish text and melody — the same one we sing at the Passover seder — it told a Jewish, Israeli and human story. This was Judaism meeting Israeli excellence to become a world-class performance. (Indeed, the piece has captured worldwide acclaim.) Such a work of art could not be generated from American Jewish institutions (note that I am not saying from individual Jews in America, but American Jewish communal institutions), because they are not competing on the world stage, as Israel is. They are not pushed to achieve the same level of excellence as Israel is, as a country, when competing against the world’s best. I realized at that moment how Israel’s existence has presented a challenge that has elevated Jewish creativity to a level never seen before. 

The second event was a night at a cultural center on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, where Israel’s new generation of leading authors, poets and songwriters assembled before an audience of about 100 people. I came at the invitation of my good friend, Eshkol Nevo, one of Israel’s new generation of celebrated authors and whose accomplishments have made him my hero. (I had met Nevo about 20 years earlier, when he was a young copywriter in a Tel Aviv ad agency where I was asked to deliver a lecture. At that time, Nevo told me he would someday be a famous author.) This event was one of several times a year when Nevo and other Israeli writers came together just to tell stories about their families. That’s all.

“Three events I attended — two in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem — crystallized my understanding of Israel’s evolving and thrilling Jewish identity. They are like three pinpoints on a big map.”

As I listened to their stories, not one mentioned the word “Jewish” and Judaism was never a topic. Yet, through their tales, I recognized Jewish characters, Jewish dilemmas, Jewish values and a whole lot of Jewish hysteria. They were all Jewish stories, but I realized that these Israelis didn’t have the need to identify them as such, like we American Diaspora Jews do. These were simply the stories of their lives in the place where they lived. In Israel, their Jewish identities had melded with the fabric of the country, freeing them from a constrictive need to point it out. Their inner Jewish identity was expansive and not pushed into a box. Jewish identity was taking on a new form. 

The third event was my yearly attendance at Jerusalem’s Mekudeshet Festival this past August and September. Mekudeshet is an extraordinary, three-week cultural festival in which the most unexpected and thrilling immersive performances are presented in spaces all over the city. It can include listening to percussive sounds while lying on the floor of the Jerusalem forest, jumping into the YMCA pool at midnight as part of the conclusion to a performance, dancing on the tables of the Machane Yehuda shuk, listening to lectures in an East Jerusalem Sufi mosque, and taking in 3 a.m. concerts in David’s Tower.

I attended during the final week, which features sacred/world music and an event called Kulna, attended by thousands, that brings together Jewish and Palestinian musicians. Mekudeshet has begun to create a Middle Eastern Jerusalem culture, voice and sound that are distinctive from Tel Aviv and all other Israeli cities. It’s a fusion of Jewish and Arab; of Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrachic; of Orthodox and secular; of Western and Middle Eastern; of the holy and everyday. It’s all shaken together and then poured out as something extraordinary, staged with the fanaticism of excellence.

Because the organizers are friends of mine, I am privileged to attend the small dinners and intimate discussions between the organizers and performers of every background. I listen as these integrated voices of Jerusalem share their struggles, the tensions between them, their discoveries from getting to know one another, and their joys in what they are achieving. 

I have had another exposure to Israel’s Jewish identity during the past year, helping the emerging leaders of Jerusalem’s Secular Yeshiva with their communications and marketing. From them, too, I am seeing the next stage of the evolution of an experimental Israeli-Jewish identity. These leaders are all graduates of Jerusalem’s Modern Orthodox Jewish high schools, growing up in observant families with a Torah-based Jewish identity. However, several of them have stepped away from traditional Orthodox observance, raising their own families while maintaining their love of and commitment to Jewish texts and learning.

The yeshiva’s participants are young business, academic, nonprofit and creative professionals committed to Jerusalem, who are standing up for the city’s once-again flourishing liberal, creative community, which is struggling to maintain and grow a population balance in Orthodox-leaning Jerusalem. As Jerusalemites, they realize the city’s Jewish identity is far more complex and conscious than for people living in Tel Aviv. They have become leading thinkers, with serious text background, about Jewish identity and their relationship to other Israelis and global Jewry.

Hundreds of people are now involved. But here, too, what is emerging is not the same as Diaspora Jewish identity. Its members are not necessarily seeing, expressing and developing their identity in a religious sense, but in an authentic national one from an Israeli perspective. Their central meeting, lecture and study ground is the bar at the Hansen House, a former leper colony turned restaurant and museum, that has become one of the hippest venues in Jerusalem. One of their most active members owns the bar. I am thoroughly convinced that the thirty-something founders of the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva will one day emerge as Israel’s national leaders, as well as respected leaders of the global Jewish community. They have their fingers on the pulse of the entire Jewish world, understanding what animates Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and what the conflicts and commonalities are between us and them. 

These are the kind of examples that I would explain to my children if they had determined that, through their liberal American Jewish sensibilities and political correctness, they would not set foot in Israel now. I would ask them if their political awareness and activities were a deeper and more meaningful Jewish expression than what is transpiring in this Zionist country they want to abandon. Many of the Israelis I have mentioned share their political sentiments. But they have remained in Israel, creating as well as struggling to make change. Do they want to separate from these people as well? 

I would also ask them if their political commitments were more important than learning Hebrew to a level of excellence, so they could immerse themselves more organically into the Israel they are so passionately abandoning by attending events in Hebrew and understanding what the country is really all about. You can’t really get the depth of the place without the language. 

I know that day schools and Jewish camps have been challenged to teach American youth how to learn and use an everyday second language, in this case Hebrew. I know that our young people are angry at their day schools, camps and Birthright for immersing them in only one narrative of Israel, not exposing the realities, complexities, paradoxes and balances of its conflicts. I know they feel that in being taught how to defend Israel, they were fed lines of propaganda without considering the legitimacy of the other side. But also, they were not taught about the soul of Israel that is emerging today. A soul that has taken years to develop. To understand it requires this new generation to take up some new education and exposure to balance the time they are giving to their political activities.  

I can identify with these children of my friends. I was an early member of Americans for Peace Now and eventually became a member of its national board. I still believe in a lot of things that the organization stands for. But at a certain point, as I worked as a consultant with Israel’s nonprofit sector, I found myself immersed in an Israel with many, many other issues and efforts to build its society. I realized that political immersion and addressing the conflict was only one way to understand Israel. There was a lot more to which I was not paying attention. 

I remember these same friends of mine, during those years when our kids were little, being aghast at my political beliefs and my involvement in Peace Now. They were further taken aback that my wife and I brought our kids to Peace Now events in the United States and Israel. Today, through their children, my friends have opened their minds. But at the same time, in order to embrace their children, they are also embracing their naiveté. Abandoning Israel for committed Jews is not an option.

There is a new, captivating Israel emerging — still complex and nuanced. We all need to balance and tune in.


Gary Wexler is an adjunct professor in the master’s in communication program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.