יום ראשון, ינואר 14, 2007



I have been planning for a while to elaborate on some themes I have addressed briefly before regarding my feelings towards the State of Israel. Now, having just read “Second thoughts on the Promised Land” in this week’s Economist, I think this is a good time to do so.

In a previous post, I made the observation that I felt that as I take on a Jewish identity, I am feeling at once more identity with the Land of Israel yet less Zionist. I am not even sure I am a Zionist, although I think I am—just not in the way that most established Jewish organizations--especially the American Jewish Committee--use (and sometimes abuse) that term.

The more I learn about Judaism, and in particular its connections to the agricultural society in which it originated and in which many of its festivals are grounded (so to speak), the more I feel connected to Israel, the Land, in an almost mystical sort of way. (I know, I am starting to use that word a lot, and I will admit that I would be hard pressed to give a coherent definition; more on that another day, perhaps.) Before I go on, I want to take a moment to note how a series of books (alas, no longer in print) by Nogah Hareuveni, published by Neot Kedumim, have crystallized these connections for me.

Even with my (growing) appreciation for the Land of Israel, I have always had serious reservations about the State of Israel. Not that I think it should be “wiped off the map,” in that horrible phrase that echoes across the news too frequently these days. My reservations do not extend to the very principle or fact of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. In fact, if being committed to that basic idea is sufficient to make one a Zionist, then I am a Zionist. On the other hand, I have opposed so many actions of so many Israeli governments (in the Occupied Territories, in two wars in Lebanon, etc.) over the years as to make me question whether I am opposing specific acts of specific groups of politicians, or to something far deeper in the fabric of the very State of Israel itself. These feelings have only intensified as I have come to practice Judaism and declare myself a candidate for conversion. And, turning our attention to acts of Israeli governments in Jewish affairs, I have a very difficult time summoning up any deep affection for a state whose government and religious establishment would not even recognize me as a Jew, given the Reform auspices of the conversion I expect to undergo some time this year. If Israel does not love me enough to honor my (future) Judaism, why should I love it? (Again, here, I am speaking of the State and its institutions, not of the Land, which I love more and more all the time.)

I admire Israel and Israelis (as I have noted before) for building and maintaining a stable democracy and advanced economy in the face of hostile neighbors. It is a remarkable set of achievements. But then I admire several other countries for their accomplishments, in totally different contexts, as well (Canada, New Zealand, Norway, post-communist Czech Republic, and others). I hope to visit Israel some day soon, maybe even for an extended period some time, but I don’t think my Jewish identity is likely ever to be tied to the State of Israel in any deep way.

The Economist article suggest that, once I become a Jew, I will not be alone. I will not try to summarize the article here; the interested reader can find the issue and read the whole thing. (I believe the link I gave above will work only for subscribers.) The article provides several pieces of evidence from various studies that suggest that, while most Jews outside Israel (in the so-called Diaspora) still support Israel strongly, “their ambivalence has grown.” Many reject the very notion that they are in a “Diaspora” and the subordinate relationship with Israel (as conjured up by terms like aliyah) that the very concept of the Diaspora implies, and only 17% of American Jews call themselves “Zionists” (according to a study by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at NYU).

A key part of the reason for the “ambivalence” is, according to the article, that the major Jewish institutions in the “Diaspora” (especially in the USA) have not updated their view of the relationship between non-Israeli Jews and Israel. Many still seem stuck in the days when Israel appeared to be the only hope for the very survival of the Jewish people or in the days when the state itself was still highly vulnerable to massive Arab armies and seemingly dependent upon miracles (as in both 1948 and 1967) to survive. (This is not the place to debate threats from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, but suffice it for now to say that while they threaten Israel and Israelis, none is existential in the sense of threatening sovereignty itself.)

I feel very keenly the irrelevance of the stances taken by established American Jewish organizations on various issues. In fact, sometimes it’s worse than irrelevance; sometimes my feelings towards the mainstream organizations are of hostility. As the Economist puts it: “The main Jewish lobby groups have tended to back right-wing Israeli governments and avoid criticizing their policies.” I have a sense that this is accurate, and that it even applies to some of the more (otherwise) liberal groups. Too often there is a fear in American Jewish establishment circles that any criticism is a short step towards being in league with the “wipe Israel off the map” crowd.

As I have alluded to in previous posts, I was very uncomfortable—to the point of wrestling with whether my beliefs were compatible with being a convert to Judaism—during the summer, 2006, war in Lebanon. I was utterly opposed to the actions of the Israeli government, which were a gross over-reaction to what I will concede was a serious provocation by Hezbollah. Serious, but not justifying the relentless pounding of Lebanese cities and towns and infrastructure that went on for a month (and ended, just as I predicted at the outset to several of my new congregant-friends, inconclusively if not in defeat for Israel).

Now there is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable at times when making major life-changing decisions. And the terror Israelis and Lebanese lived under for that month renders my “discomfort” utterly trivial. Moreover, the outpouring of support from within the American Jewish community for Israelis in time of war is indeed something to be proud of. However, I will never forget how squirmingly uncomfortable I felt at an evening service in July when copies of a certain (and, let me say scurrilous and unbecoming of a great newspaper) column by that noted expert on the law of war and counterinsurgency policy, Alan Dershowitz, were being distributed approvingly. The theme of the column was that no one in southern Lebanon or the Beirut suburbs being bombarded by Israeli warplanes was meaningfully a “civilian.” One by one, various congregants went up to the bimah to speak of the need to stand behind Israel, while not one word of sympathy was expressed for Lebanese. It was very tribal, I felt at the time. As this was going on, my wife, knowing how uncomfortable I was, asked me if I was going to get up and say anything. No way! I know my place, as someone still then unknown to most of the congregation and not even a Jew. Besides, deep down, I think I understood even at the moment the need that the congregation (which includes some people who formerly lived in Israel and many who had family or friends in harm’s way) to have a “rally” in such difficult times. Still, it was an experience that led to serious—and still ongoing—“wrestling” with what it means to be a “Diaspora” Jew (to be) and a Zionist in the context of current Israeli and Middle East politics. And, in that process, I found my search of the websites of the leading Jewish organizations in America—and their lack of any forum for debating the policies underlying the war, even once the fighting ended—very disappointing.

As I noted above, the Economist article discusses an emerging trend in American Jewish life—mainly among youth—for less engagement with Israel and Zionism, and more with tikkun olam and Jewish social activism. For example, the Genocide Intervention Network and other activities around Darfur and other crises. The article also mentions the New Israel Fund, and I will quote the paragraph about it:

Some groups try to keep Israel relevant but in new ways. The New Israel Fund, for instance, holds traditional fund-raising appeals for Israel, but gives a lot of the money to untraditional causes like gay or Arab civil rights. It is also less afraid of politics: it published a newspaper article in November criticising the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing extremist, in the Israeli government, while groups like the AJC kept an embarrassed silence.

Now that is a form of support for Israel that I can get behind!

These new forms of activism are, however, often disconnected from religious observance. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that most religious observance takes place in the context of institutionalized manifestations of American Judaism—the very organizations whose positions are nowadays often irrelevant to (especially younger) American Jews. In fact, the Economist notes that Cohen, the sociologist, believes there may be a developing “polarisation” in American Jewry:

a small group growing more pious and attached to Israel, while a larger one drifts away.

Well, why should there have to be polarization? I hope we can find a way to be both pious and attached to Israel in ways that do not involve failing to stand up and question the policies of that country’s government.

Finally, the article also notes the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany, Poland, Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe, and a renewed interest in the study of Yiddish. (My own evolving Jewish identity is probably more connected to these regions, and in particular western Ukraine, than it is to Israel; perhaps this will be a theme of a future post.)

So, I expect to continue wrestling with Zionism and Israel. I think that, in a religious tradition that encourages “wrestling with God,” the least we and our community leaders can do is encourage these other forms of wrestling, as well, without feeling as though doing so threatens in any way the fabric of what it means to be a Jew.

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