November 19, 2018

We must teach about Israel — warts and all

A friend of mine who used to run a large economic justice nonprofit organization tells the story of coming across a demonstration in Times Square at which an Israeli flag was being burned and of his shock at realizing that the lead burners were allies of his from the movement.

And while this kind of thing isn’t characteristic of progressive America (the Democrats didn’t get 87 percent of the Jewish vote in the last election because they are anti-Israel), it is true there is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment in some circles of the American left right now.

Some of it is calumny, and some of it is legitimate criticism, but either way, the result is that many young Jewish social justice activists are left with a sense of confusion, torn allegiances and discomfort. They are disturbed by the “Smash Zionism” signs they see at anti-war rallies and immigrant rights marches. They perceive an unfair bias against Israel on the left, a lack of nuance, a myopia that serves to magnify Israel’s faults and flaws beyond all proportion.

It doesn’t help that the organized American Jewish community establishment — the Jewish federations, organizations and agencies and synagogue movements that make up the stuff of American Jewish communal life — suffers from a sort of inverted identical twin myopia.

By this I mean that for the past 60-plus years, since the end of WWII, the American Jewish establishment has predicated Jewish identity on three pillars: vigilance against anti-Semitism, commitment to continuity and personal and communal identification with Israel. The reason for this is understandable: American Jewish leaders found themselves suddenly in 1945 at the center of a decimated Jewish universe. How better to unite and revive a broken people and insure its survival than through the epic project of building a strong Jewish state?

But the focus on and radical identification with Israel, the substitution of relationship with Israel for relationship with Judaism or Jewishness, has bequeathed to the American Jewish community a blind spot of our own. For many American Jews of a certain age, Israel is religion; it is everything.

I remember a cousin’s bar mitzvah in Chicago in the early ’80s and a great-uncle who told me that should Israel, God forbid, some day be annihilated by a nuclear attack, he hoped the rest of the world would go up in flames with it. You can’t be serious, I said, your grandchildren live here, not in Israel. The whole world, he said.

That’s extreme, but take a look at the actual work of the major Jewish advocacy, defense and human relations organizations. It’s almost all Israel, all the time. And, unlike in Israel itself, where a bewildering diversity of opinion is the norm, the big American Jewish organizations and institutions pretty much all subscribe to the party line when it comes to a position on Israel. If you’ve read Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” you have a good idea of what that line is: heroic Israel, right or wrong.

This is reflected in the whitewashed version of Israel that we impart to young Jews in our synagogues and Hebrew schools and summer camps — a Bushian story of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, us vs. them, with no room for the moral ambiguities and shades of gray that make reality so complicated. There is no room for recognition that Israel — like America — is a real country, one with high ideals that it does not always live up to.

And unlike in Israel, it’s very difficult to hear alternative opinions about Israel here at home. Thoughtful, loving critique of Israel is at best coldly tolerated. Public criticism is frowned upon. And outright disagreement with Israeli policy can open you up to charges of self-hatred and race traitorism. The idea that there might be more than one way to love and support Israel is not reflected in the public posture of the American Jewish mainstream.

The result of all of this is that young American Jews go out into the world without the tools to navigate a positive relationship with Israel in complicated times. It’s not just that what they’ve been told about Israel doesn’t prepare them to respond to anti-Israel propaganda on college campuses and in the social justice movement, it’s that they’re not even sure how to make sense of what they watch on CNN, read in the newspaper or find on the Internet. They don’t know where Jewish myths end and truth begins, or where truth ends and anti-Israel demonization starts up.

And the truth is complicated: Israel is a vibrant democracy that represents one of the great chapters in the history of the Jewish people. It is not an apartheid state: Despite numerous problems, all of the citizens of the State of Israel have the right to vote and access to the political and legal system, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

And despite an on-going campaign of terror, threats from Iran and radical Islamists worldwide and the failure of Palestinian leadership, the vast majority of Israelis have demonstrated time and time again that they want an end to the conflict and are willing to exchange land for peace.

Since the founding of the state, Israelis have tried to create a political space that can simultaneously embrace the core values of Judaism and democracy, serve as a refuge for Jews in need and provide real equality for all of its citizens. Obviously, it often fails to achieve these goals, but Israel struggles every day to live up to its own founding principles.

At the same time, Israel has for almost 40 years engaged in an occupation of the West Bank, subjecting 2.4 million Palestinians to a difficult and often miserable existence. Worse, successive Israeli governments have allowed and enabled a vast settlement enterprise that has resulted in terrible inequity, with land, water resources and infrastructure taken away from the Palestinian population to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, whose presence makes the possibility of a resolution of the conflict ever more remote.

Yes, Israel took the West Bank only after Jordan attacked it in the Six-Day War, but if you travel there today, you will see the Jewish-only roads, the tidy and growing Jewish settlements and the overwhelming military matrix of checkpoints, bases and patrols needed to protect them, all built at the expense of millions of impoverished Palestinians. Its hard not to make some unpleasant comparisons.