September 19, 2019

Israel Festival: A Timeout for Love

The relationship between American Jews and Israel has never been, to put it politely, more complicated. If you’re on the left, you have a host of reasons why you can’t stand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If you’re on the right, you have a host of reasons why you can’t stand those who can’t stand Netanyahu.

And if you’re in the shrinking middle, you try to get out of the way of the verbal shrapnel.

Israel, that glorious biblical homecoming that used to unite so many Jews, has become a source of intense division among American Jewry. What happened?

For one thing, Israel is no longer a fragile state in its infancy that attracted so much sympathy. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has become a juggernaut of power and success. Sure, it’s still surrounded by lethal enemies, but its ability to withstand security threats is unparalleled. This kind of strength invites blame more than it does sympathy.

Second, with Israel becoming stronger, American Jews have felt liberated to unleash “tough love” criticism at the Jewish state. This has created a backlash among Israel defenders who believe that Israel already has more than enough criticism from within and from the world at large.

Third, in America, we don’t live and breathe Israel — we talk and argue Israel. When the Israeli government does something that drives some Jews nuts — a Nationalist bill, a rejection of non-Orthodox streams, a chronic failure to resolve the Palestinian conflict, etc. — we can only lash out from afar with op-eds, petitions and protests. Eventually, if we don’t see progress, it’s easy for some Jews to become embittered and alienated and conclude that the Zionist project is failing.

“In a marriage, this is how divorce starts. You see only what divides you, and you forget what united you in the first place.”

Defenders of Israel consider this judgment overly harsh. They concede that Israel is far from perfect but see it more as a “mess in progress.” Since they don’t live and vote in Israel and don’t have to suffer the consequences, they’re reluctant to preach to Israelis, especially on security issues. Also, they look at the United States and Great Britain and wonder: Is the Israeli political scene that much worse than those two train wrecks? 

When our infighting is interrupted by good news, such as Israeli innovations in science, sending aid to disaster areas or creating top Hollywood content, the “tough love” critics are not overly impressed, as if to say, “Look at you! You’re so good at everything else, why can’t you get your political and democratic house in order?”

Defenders of Israel look at Israel’s extraordinary success and think: Isn’t it incredible that this tiny country can accomplish all this while being surrounded by 150,000 enemy rockets and neighbors sworn to its destruction?

Meanwhile, the media’s obsession with politics and the general hostility toward Israel further inflame the communal conversation. No country is more condemned at the United Nations than the Jewish state, and the growing boycott, divestment, sanctions movement aims to undermine Israel’s very right to exist.

In this nerve-wracking environment, the battle lines have been drawn between Jews who are still fiercely committed to the value of public criticism of Israel, and those who see that criticism as ultimately ineffective, too lacking in context and feeding an already hostile world. Each side devalues the other.

“Israel, that glorious biblical homecoming that used to unite so many Jews, has become a source of intense division among American Jewry. What happened?”

In a marriage, this is how divorce starts. You see only what divides you, and you forget what united you in the first place. Soon enough, you call in the lawyers, go through hell for a while and move on and build a new life.

Is that what our community should settle for? Do we feel so strongly about our positions that we are ready to divorce the Jews who don’t share our views?

Indeed, it would be a tragic irony if the “miracle of Israel” became the issue that finally tore American Jews apart. That thought alone should be a wake-up call to kick the divorce lawyers out of the room.

Because this is the truth that rarely gets spoken: No matter how acrimonious our divisions, there is still more that unites us than divides us. We just need to look for it.

Which brings me to an opportunity to do just that: If there’s a place in your heart for Israel, no matter which side of the divide you’re on, show up at the annual Celebrate Israel Festival this Sunday, May 19, at Rancho Park (I’ll be at the Jewish Journal booth if you want to say hello).

For one day at least, there won’t be any agonizing debates that remind us of our ideological divisions, but a celebration of why so many of us love Israel in the first place.

We can resume our fighting on Monday.