Coming Closer to Israel

Posted on Jan 05, 2012

I read the responses to my December 21st blog posting on the topic, “Distancing from Israel,” in the wake of a spate of news reports from Israel that graphically illustrated one piece of the problem we face in trying to overcome such distancing. It’s upsetting to many of us here in North America to see pictures of Haredi kids dressed by their parents with yellow Jewish stars in order to liken Israeli police enforcing Israeli law to Nazi murderers of Jews. It’s hard to watch settler extremists torch mosques and break into army bases to protest government policies and law-enforcement that they do not like. It’s painful to Jews brought up to be proud of the Jewish role in America’s civil rights struggle to see images of Jews in Israel separating men and women on buses on religious grounds or hurling abuse at a little girl because she does not dress as they think she should. And sometimes—often—it’s very hard to find images of Israel in our media that counter those. Where are the positive stories that do make us swell with pride? Like the outpouring of outrage at such incidents by Israelis of all streams, including Orthodox Jews, major rabbinical figures, and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Or the amazing economy that continues to outpace the West, including an unemployment rate that has reached an all time low of 5%.

I know that “man bites dog” is news and not the other way around; media always favor the sensational and go for the bad far more than the good. The latter is often frothy rather than treated seriously. But it also seems that positive images and stories make their way into local or national news more often than into international coverage, especially about the Middle East.

This points to the crying need for our community to get coverage of Jewish matters more directly, fairly, and substantively to the average North American Jew. Digests of Jewish news of the sort that already reach Jewish leaders every day (and, even better, video coverage of Jewish issues) could easily reach every affiliated Jew in North America and many who are not affiliated. This would make a big difference in how Jews think and feel about Israel.

Of course negative acts by Israeli extremists and biased media coverage of Israel do not account for most of the distancing. Other factors too are operative—and the blog responses pointed to those factors clearly, as well as to actions that should be taken by the North American community—and by Israelis—to address them.

Simple, honest, face-to-face conversation would go a long way. I have to believe that if Susan—who is “sick of hearing nothing but bumper stickers from most of the pro-Israel organizations, including the leadership of those I support,” could talk in person with Rick, who writes that “those of us who support Israel should be very vocal about our feelings,” and if such conversation were multiplied by tens of thousands, we’d be stronger as a community and closer as a community to Israel.

If more Jews from North America had the chance to see Israeli society in action up close and at length—and, even better, to work closely with Israelis as Rabbi Moldo suggests, or the Partnership 2000 program achieved—there would be more positive images at work on this side of the divide to overcome the negatives. This is the case with those of us who came to be Jewish leaders in part because we did have such experiences in Israel over the years. Efforts at conversation among Israelis across wide ideological divides have proven significant to participants. I am convinced the same would be true of discussion and joint projects between Israeli Jews and North Americans.

We are working to ensure that this is part of the “basic training” of every Jewish leader trained at JTS. It’s one thing to think of people in categories like the “Haredim” in my first paragraph above or like “Israelis,” a word which to many Jews outside Israel conjures up immediate images of politicians or faceless soldiers. Those of us with close friends and family in Israel—including soldiers whose faces are very much on our minds when danger comes—think about Israel differently. We don’t whitewash the negatives. But we have the positives to match them. Knowledge of history and context likewise goes a long way in countering bad news from Israel as well as biased reporting.

I appreciated the reminder by one post that Jews disagree on Israel because we disagree on everything. True. We joke about that (“two Jews, three opinions”), and either shake our heads knowingly about the matter or don’t give it any attention. That’s not true when fundamental values or existential needs are at stake, as they are when Israeli rabbis with state power behind them do not count some of us as Jews, say so loudly and frequently, and make life difficult for Jews they do not count as Jews to marry in Israel or even get visas renewed. Several blog respondents raised this issue. Another such issue is when Israelis seem to disdain democracy—which for most Jews in North America is not simply one among many values but a basic moral commitment. Democracy guarantees our rightful places in the United States and Canada. We have been taught to believe—and do believe—that it is fundamental, good, and true. The fear that Israel might cease to be a democracy in the common American meaning of the term raises multiple specters that are truly frightening. When Israelis stand up for equal protection of the law and protect minority rights—and especially when Orthodox or right-wing Israelis do so—it heartens Americans and Canadians deeply. We treasure the fact that freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, and respect for people who are different, are unquestioned axioms in North America. We want them to be so in Israel. This, we are convinced, is not only best for Israel, but essential for its survival and certainly crucial to our relationship to it.

That’s the bottom line: the stakes are so high, all the time, making for heartache, worry, shouting, intolerance—and also great caring, and a special dimension to our love. Israel has to make it, has to succeed, cannot be allowed to fail, in the face of challenges that would long ago have overcome lesser states and despite enemies who would long ago have destroyed less resilient peoples. The State of Israel cannot afford to be torn apart by internecine struggle among Jews. It needs to find a way as well to accommodate its non-Jewish minorities and to live side by side with unfriendly neighbors.

Every Israeli I know, and many American Jews, used to tell me exactly how to achieve these goals. No serious person of my acquaintance claims to know in January 2012 how to get from “here” to any desirable “there.” We all want to do what we can in the meantime to help get there. Those of us who do not live in Israel cannot help unless we are involved, attached, and deeply supportive.