From the upcoming (Spring ’08) edition of Israel Horizons
Recently, the editor of a widely-circulated Jewish weekly newspaper bemoaned the growing estrangement between American Jews and Israeli Jews. Citing recent studies by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute established by the Jewish Agency, the editor reported that the Jews of Israel and the USA are having an increasingly difficult time understanding each other’s needs and concerns, and are becoming ever more apathetic regarding their widening gap.
Interestingly, the editor of this mainstream Jewish paper drew great attention to this situation in his weekly column, but not only failed to reflect on what the origins of the problem might be, but also omitted any possible remedies that might check the momentum of this intercontinental drift.
Having just returned from two weeks in Israel and Palestine, as part of Meretz USA’s “Israel Symposium,” I could not help but notice how different the atmosphere was than what the editor had described. I wondered why our Symposium had witnessed such a high degree of engagement and communication when the general picture appears to be one characterized by miscommunication and disengagement.
Before I address that question, a few words about the Israel Symposium are in order. The weeklong trip to Israel has become an annual tradition for Meretz USA and the highlight of our educational and organizational calendar. It is a time during which Meretz USA supporters are given the opportunity to see Israel as few other American Jewish visitors do: We receive fascinating in-depth briefings from well-known, high-ranking politicians and from renowned academics and journalists. This year’s roster included Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad and Meretz chair Dr. Yossi Beilin.
At least as importantly, we meet and exchange ideas with people on the cutting edge of social and political change in Israel – people like Yehuda Shaul of the IDF reservists’ group, “Breaking the Silence,” which seeks to educate the Israeli public and the Diaspora Jewish community about the moral and psychological repercussions of their service in the Occupied Territories.
Or like Hanna Barag, of “Machsom Watch,” a group of Israeli women peace activists who work to highlight the repressive nature of Israel’s checkpoint system in the West Bank.
Or Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad of the “Parents Circle,” an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost first-degree relatives in the conflict, but who nonetheless band together to work for reconciliation and non-violence.
But what makes the atmosphere on the Meretz USA Symposium so special is not only the caliber of the people we meet: It is the attitude embraced by the participants themselves.
‘Hasbara’ is bad PR
While the implicit (and, with some organizations, explicit) agenda of most Israel missions is to learn that assemblage of facts that will help “make the case” for Israel back at home, the Meretz USA Symposium is designed to enable participants, thirsty for knowledge, to gain an authentic understanding of a very complex story. Symposium participants have always displayed a rare desire to know (and love) the real, multidimensional Israel – not the idealized country too often depicted by tendentious spin-doctors engaged in Israel’s “hasbara” (PR) effort. This year was no exception.
But this desire to get the full picture, I believe, is not born of any intellectual purism or political correctness, and certainly not of any enmity toward Israel. If anything, it is fostered by the understanding that the presentation of a “cardboard Israel” is destined to be ineffective in a world that increasingly turns its attention to the Middle East and is less tolerant of dichotomous explanations involving “good (Israel) vs. evil (Arabs).”
Indeed, as someone who cares deeply about Israel, I have long argued that the cheerleading service provided by ostensibly “pro-Israel” advocates is actually a disservice. Cheerleaders, by definition, are biased observers; their credibility is inherently suspect. Since it’s hard to believe that Israel’s government never gets it wrong, those who make this claim end up as dubious “character witnesses” in the court of public opinion. And although main-street America continues to support Israel in large numbers, such sentiment is not predestinate: Should Americans’ sympathy for Israel ever waver, the Jewish homeland will need allies who can be counted on for “straight talk”.
Knee-jerk support for Israeli government policy and actions isn’t right, and it isn’t smart: This year’s Israel Symposium participants neither overlooked nor absolved Israel’s mistakes and flaws: They recognized them, as part of a three-dimensional reality in which all parties – Palestinians, the greater Arab world, the US, et al. – have too frequently blundered and erred.
The Courage (and Concern) to Question
It goes without saying that, at the end of the day, the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel are the ones who must make the crucial decisions that determine the country’s future and directly affect their lives. Israel is a sovereign nation and questions of land, security, peace, equal rights and religious and cultural diversity rightly will be resolved by those who dwell within its borders. Nonetheless, as opposed to the mythic images that some would-be advocates of Israel have created, the citizens of Israel are flesh-and-blood, not infallible superheroes; their attitudes and opinions were not handed down from Mt. Sinai and should not be regarded as immune to challenge and criticism.
My fellow participants on the Meretz USA Symposium showed utmost respect for the many figures who were kind enough to meet us. But they also displayed the intellectual courage to challenge, to question, to politely demur and even to register protest. They understood that, although the Israelis make the final decisions, the process by which these decisions are made will only be enriched by a two-way dialogue with concerned and committed American Jews.
We all know from our personal lives that when we find ourselves stumped by a problem or unable to overcome an obstacle, we seek the counsel of someone who cares – someone who is less involved, and who can understand our concerns but also offers an additional, complementary perspective. That someone is called a friend.
Meretz USA, and the participants on its Symposium, are friends of Israel – not “yes-men,” not “fans” or “devotees”– friends who care enough to be honest, even when it hurts.
Talking to– not only ‘standing with’– Israel
Which brings me back to the editor who bemoaned the chasm between Israeli and American Jews. All too often, we hear that for a growing segment of American Jews, a relationship with Israel is not as important as it once was. Perhaps this is because the connection American Jews are being offered is not a relationship in the true sense of the word.
Certainly there are many American Jews who are sincerely engaged in efforts to “defend,” “safeguard” or “stand with” Israel. But how many more Jews – especially younger ones – are turning off to Israel (and being lost to the Jewish community), because they can’t help but feel that the prevailing model for interaction is far too shallow, too servile, too uninspiring.
Israel needs a robust, long-term relationship with the American Jewish community as a whole – not just the support of a minority of dedicated activists. And the American Jewish community can only draw strength and motivation from getting to know the real Israel – a beautiful-but-blemished country with character, quite unlike the airbrushed version that is the staple of the country’s tourism industry. It is a country to love, not worship.
Such a relationship will come about, however, only when American Jews are allowed – no, encouraged – to dialogue with Israel about the problems that both are facing: openly, constructively, respectfully and candidly; to speak out of love – even when it’s tough love – like friends are supposed to.