Can We Talk? About Israel?

Sit down, grab a cup of coffee. Can we talk?

The moment comes for everyone, eventually. Perhaps it occurs while you are visiting Israel, maybe is occurs at home. You see something, hear something, read something about Israel that makes you…cringe. You shake your head in disbelief and frustration.

It is hard to reconcile this information with the image of the country you have loved all your life. It is especially jarring if Israel has been presented to you as a kind of utopia. Suddenly there are big, ugly cracks in that image. Disillusioned, you voice your criticism. Gradually, what’s wrong with Israel begins to overshadow what’s right with Israel. Adding to your frustration is the sense that not everyone is so keen to hear your critiques. “I’m saying these things out of love for Israel,” you say with exasperation. “Are we really not allowed to criticize?”

Indeed. The topic of how we Jews talk about Israel, especially among ourselves, has become so contentious that programs have been conducted to teach us how to talk and how to listen respectfully to each other on this highly emotional topic.

A balance needs to be struck between a reflexive, unquestioning belief that Israel can do no wrong, and the flip side of that coin, that there is precious little that Israel gets right.

While we search for the sweet spot between these two extremes, we need to bear a few things in mind. Number one is perspective. The always thoughtful and thought-provoking Daniel Gordis, addresses this candidly:

“To love Israel, I believe, is to know that the Jewish state is not just a flag or an army or some holy place. To love Israel is to love the real Israel, with all its many warts and imperfections. And to love Israel is to know that there is a difference between a wart and a serious disease; when an imperfection is so serious as to threaten the entire enterprise, then the most loyal thing that one can do is to insist that Israel be better.”

Back to perspective: can you tell the difference between a wart and a serious disease? Perhaps you see the growing influence of the ultra-religious as a “serious disease”, one that truly threatens Israel’s future. Your criticism is strong; you get involved in some way to push for change. Yet at the same time, can you still maintain a kind of moral ledger, keeping Israel’s many strengths and achievements on the plus side? Can you manage the flexibility of thinking that allows you to see both sides of that ledger- even when dealing with the negative side? To me, that is perspective, and it is not easy. I have often encountered Jews who get fixated on a particular issue that really bothers them, and then they are unable to see anything else. Good news coming from Israel is dismissed with a “Yes, but…” and back to their issue they go. Not fair.

The second thing to remember is that despite the information overload that most of us experience, we don’t know as much as we think we do. The Internet makes it exceedingly easy to seek out only the information that reinforces our particular point of view. Alternative voices, small scale initiatives at work to solve problems…it takes time, effort and will to find them. Particularly with regard to matters of security, peace negotiations, and foreign affairs, a vast amount of information is unavailable to us. A little humility about “what we know” is in order.

Speaking of humility, how prepared are we to be on the receiving end of criticism from Israel? Sometimes it seems like American Jews’ desire for honest dialogue and constructive criticism is a one-way street. For example, when renowned Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua makes his periodic pronouncements that Israeli Jews are total Jews and American Jews are only partial Jews, it generates howls of indignation. We respond, correctly, that a rich and meaningful Jewish life is available in America. And yet, can’t we also acknowledge that there is a qualitative difference to be found in living in the Jewish homeland, where Hebrew is spoken and Jews are the majority, religiously, ethnically, culturally?

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary also comments on the one-way nature of criticism. When I saw the ads that he refers to below, I was furious. Reading his analysis caused me to rethink my initial (over)reaction:

Twice over the past years, Israeli government agencies ran afoul of American Jewish organizations by sponsoring TV commercials suggesting that Jewish life in America can lead to assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity. Both sets of commercials, in keeping with the form, were terse and blunt. The message they delivered was also factually true. Moreover, the ads were in Hebrew, placed in Israeli media, and directed at an Israeli audience. Nevertheless, they elicited outrage on the part of leading American Jewish organizations offended by the message that all may not be rosy in American Jewish life. In quick order, the Israeli sponsors pulled the ads. The lesson? American Jews are free to criticize aspects of Israeli society that bother them but woe unto Israelis who dare speak openly about assimilation, the Achilles heel of American Jewish life.

The last thing to keep in mind is that we Jews, less than 1% of the world population, are indeed a family, and at times, a quarrelsome one. Like the families we live with, we need to be generous with our love, judicious with our critiques– and open to hearing criticism ourselves. We must continue to hold Israel (and ourselves) to high standards while still loving the Jewish homeland in all her flawed humanity. A difficult dance, to say the least. But one whose complicated steps we are obligated to learn, practice, and with effort, master.

(Photo: Christina Matheson)