Em­brac­ing Israel

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Jane Eis­ner

It sounds like an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but you know it’s true. You can walk into just about any Jewish gath­er­ing place — a sy­n­a­gogue, a so­cial club, a Shab­bat din­ner — and chal­lenge the very ex­is­tence of God or the sanc­tity of To­rah, and your re­li­gious and eth­nic fealty will not be ques­tioned.

But dare ex­press views on Israel that may run counter to the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude in the room?

You’ll be called a self-hat­ing Jew (if you are deemed “anti-Israel”) or an in­tol­er­ant right-winger (if your pol­i­tics are too “pro-Israel,” what­ever that means).

In other words, the foun­da­tional tenets of the Jewish peo­ple that have lasted for thou­sands of years, based on a be­lief in God and To­rah and a com­mit­ment to com­mu­nity and mitzvot, may be openly de­rided or dis­re­garded, but the wrong words about a coun­try that is not yet 70 years old will land you in big trou­ble.

This last year has only ex­ac­er­bated the sit­u­a­tion, with an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent whom many Jews find of­fen­sive and dan­ger­ous, and an Is­raeli prime min­is­ter will­ing to ig­nore Di­as­pora needs to shore up his frag­ile coali­tion at home. As a re­sult, the po­lit­i­cal left is more and more will­ing to crit­i­cize and iso­late Israel, and the po­lit­i­cal right is more and more ea­ger to make the as­ser­tion that sup­port for the Ne­tanyahu gov­ern­ment takes prece­dence over any­thing else.

The For­ward is caught up in this dy­namic, es­pe­cially given the sharp shift in tone — though so far not in ac­tual pol­icy — of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­gard­ing the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict, a con­flict that seems fur­ther away from res­o­lu­tion than ever. Any dis­course on Israel, it now seems, is sub­ject to a lit­mus test of ac­cept­abil­ity. And the more brightly we draw those lines to spec­ify who’s in and who’s out, who’s with us or against us, the more many Amer­i­can Jews, es­pe­cially younger ones, are sim­ply walk­ing away.

I’d like to sug­gest a new fram­ing, one that we em­ploy at the For­ward, based not on “pro” and “anti” but on whether Jews are en­gaged with Israel in some pro­duc­tive way.

This grows out of my per­sonal be­lief that en­gage­ment with Israel is an es­sen­tial part of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st cen­tury. That wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case for my par­ents or, of course, for my grand­par­ents, but it is for Jews to­day. Israel is there. It is to be sup­ported, chal­lenged, wres­tled with, em­braced. Ig­nor­ing it is to ig­nore this very his­tor­i­cal mo­ment, a mo­ment of priv­i­lege, of liv­ing at a time when Jews are able to ex­er­cise sovereignty in their an­cient land. This be­lief guides the editorial pol­icy of the For­ward. In this for­mu­la­tion, the ques­tion isn’t whether you sup­port the cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy on set­tle­ments or if you are against it — or myr­iad other “tests” that cer­tain Jews ap­ply to cer­tain other Jews. The ques­tion is whether Israel is a part of your Jewish life. The ques­tion is whether you care.

You may care about Is­raeli film and noth­ing else; Is­raeli food or fash­ion and noth­ing else. Be­ing a cul­tural Zion­ist is still be­ing a Zion­ist, if be­ing a Zion­ist means that you be­lieve there is some­thing in­trin­si­cally spe­cial and im­mutable about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Di­as­pora Jews and Israel.

Now, I can hear the hard-lin­ers say, “That’s fine if your Zion­ism con­sists of eat­ing shish ke­bab and shak­shuka, but Israel faces an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis that goes well be­yond what’s on the menu.” The left would say the cri­sis stems from the con­tin­ued oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tinian lands, while the right would say it’s from the con­tin­ued threats to Israel’s se­cu­rity. Ei­ther way, ig­nor­ing it means you aren’t se­ri­ous and, in fact, may play straight into the hands of those who wish to de­stroy Israel by one means or another.

Two re­sponses. First, in that case — if the ul­ti­mate test of Zion­ism is a com­mit­ment to en­sure Israel’s fu­ture — then who­ever is will­ing to de­bate those is­sues re­spon­si­bly is demon­strat­ing that he or she cares and is en­gaged. That should be enough to al­low en­try into the prover­bial “Jewish tent” we talk about a lot, but too of­ten in ways that leave the struc­ture shrunken and plas­tered with “Keep out” signs.

What­ever re­mains of Amer­i­can Jewish co­he­sion will fur­ther erode if we can’t ap­pre­ci­ate that the IfNotNow ac­tivist rail­ing against the oc­cu­pa­tion is en­gag­ing with Israel’s fu­ture in her way, and the fun­der send­ing money to West Bank set­tle­ments is en­gag­ing with Israel’s fu­ture in his way.

That’s why the For­ward pub­lishes all these points of view, and more.

The op­po­site of en­gage­ment is not hate. It’s ap­a­thy. Even worse: alien­ation.

Which brings me to my sec­ond re­sponse. Ap­a­thy and alien­ation, its more ac­tive and in­sid­i­ous cousin, are threats just as real as those posed by weaponry and ter­ror­ism. And the po­lar­iza­tion of our Is­raeli dis­course is has­ten­ing these trends, es­pe­cially among young Jews.

A fas­ci­nat­ing new study of at­ti­tudes on Cal­i­for­nia col­lege cam­puses con­ducted by the Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Ari Kel­man found that many Jewish stu­dents re­sented be­ing ex­pected to hold a par­tic­u­lar view about the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict when, in fact, they hold a range of opin­ions. This ex­pec­ta­tion made them feel marginal­ized in both ac­tivist com­mu­ni­ties and Jewish groups.

“As a re­sult,” the study con­cludes, “they of­ten chose to avoid pol­i­tics or or­ga­nized Jewish life en­tirely.”

The way to en­sure Israel’s fu­ture in the civic and po­lit­i­cal sphere is to open up con­ver­sa­tion and not re­strict it, to ac­knowl­edge its com­plex­i­ties and not down­play them. Israel could be wiped off the map by Ira­nian mis­siles, true. Or it could be erased from the hearts and minds of those who sim­ply don’t care or turn away in anger or dis­gust.

This is why I am per­son­ally against the move­ment to boy­cott, di­vest from and sanc­tion Israel. While I ap­pre­ci­ate the at­tempt to cre­ate non­vi­o­lent protest against the oc­cu­pa­tion, BDS is not re­ally about en­gage­ment. Its pur­pose is to dis­en­gage, to ig­nore and iso­late, to pun­ish and erase.

None­the­less, we wel­come its pro­po­nents to make their ar­gu­ments on our pages, as we wel­come those who be­lieve that Judea and Sa­maria are as es­sen­tial as Tel Aviv. At the same time, and not in­ci­den­tally, we as­sert Israel’s cen­tral­ity to Jewish life by cov­er­ing film and food, ed­u­ca­tion and faith, by writ­ing about its achieve­ments and its flaws. And to those who don’t share this core be­lief about Israel’s es­sen­tial­ity, I say: Let us open your eyes to what you are miss­ing.

What we talk about when we talk about Israel is part of the past, present and fu­ture of the Jewish peo­ple, wher­ever we live. As a new year dawns, let’s shelve the lit­mus tests and the name-call­ing, and stop drawing red lines around an ever smaller zone of ac­cept­abil­ity. Let’s be gen­er­ous to other Jews and build al­liances with our neigh­bors.

Public dis­course in Amer­ica these days is too of­ten mean and de­grad­ing, and the dis­course on Israel is sadly no ex­cep­tion. Wouldn’t it be amaz­ing if Amer­i­can Jews could ex­em­plify a bet­ter way?

The ques­tion is whether Israel is a part of your Jewish life. The ques­tion is whether you care.

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