What’s a Jew to Do?

What’s a Jew to Do?

How can we, as Jews and Zionists, reconcile our social conscience and care for human rights, with our love for Israel, in face of worldwide criticism?

So there we were, marching alongside Martin Luther King, protesting apartheid in South Africa, and voting overwhelmingly for Barak Obama. Without a doubt, Jews have been amongst the most concerned groups regarding human rights in America for at least the last 50 years. And it makes sense. After the lessons from the Holocaust, “Never again,” a long history of persecution and anti-Semitism, and traditional Jewish values like Tikkun Olam (the repairing of the world) and Aravut (our responsibility towards each other as a community), it makes sense that Jews will care deeply about human rights and human values.

It also makes sense that we will care deeply about Israel. Judaism is a vestige from an era of national religions. Until 2000 years ago, and for millennia, religion was not only a belief system, but a way of national identification and cohesion; a legal and moral code that differentiated your nation from the others. And thus, the Romans had their own religion, the Egyptians theirs, the Norse theirs, and so on. So, of course, did the subjects of the nation of Yehuda, or Judea, which were called Yehudim, or Jews.

National religions fell into disfavor during the first millennium of “the common era,” with the emergence of the two big Supra-National religions (Christianity and Islam). Jews lost their land and were scattered around the globe, but somehow our national religion survived.

So Jews became an anomaly. A group with a national religion in an era of supranational faiths, and then in the era of national states. But nations not only have a need for a land, they also have a fundamental right to self-determination. So, Jews through the eons yearned for both, and finally we got it with the foundation of the State of Israel. So it makes sense that we would care deeply about Israel, and it makes sense that we would care deeply about human rights.

But what’s a Jew to do when the world over, people claim these two fundamental values of Judaism collide? The recent Gaza offensive brings, once again, this elemental contradiction afloat, and we Jews are looked at to take sides in what is tantamount to a “Sophie’s choice:” Which one of your children do you sacrifice? When Israel is accused over and over of human rights abuses, and you see all of your non-Jewish liberal friends clearly taking sides, condemning the bombings and accusing Israel of using disproportionate force (to say the least), a part of you wants to join them. But another part of you wants to oppose them, and defend Israel. So, what’s a Jew to do?

In reality, most of us just shut down, watch the news, and try to stay under the radar, living with the double sense of guilt. Reminding yourself that Israel is doing everything they can to protect civilians, of course as long as it doesn’t compromise operational effectiveness, doesn’t help.

So, I offer you a modest proposal: It is possible to care about Israel and human rights. Just as a family member who sees a relative fall into despair and addiction, if you believe Israel is doing wrong, you should speak out, out of caring, out of love. But just as you need to confront a loved one who is doing wrong, if you want to help, you don’t condemn the person but their actions. You don’t condemn Israel; you criticize, fairly and constructively, their response to what is evidently the real threat of missiles from Gaza. However, you also stand up to those who go beyond criticizing the actions of the government, and into delegitimizing the state and the nation.

The Talmud says that Kol Israel Arevim Ze la Ze, all of the nation of Israel are responsible for each other. That means that we confront each other since the actions of one affect all of us, but we also protect each other.

By | 2009-01-06T18:35:00-05:00 January 6th, 2009|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Monica January 8, 2009 at 1:28 am - Reply

    Indeed, as a jew I am torn between Israel’s (and any nation in an equivalent position) right to defend itself, and what the world is condemning as excessive use of force. However, is it really excessive, or does it just seem excessive because the people from Palestine are seen as destitutes while Israel is seen worldwide as a bully?. I know this is just a parallel issue, but it never ceases to amaze me how the media forget that Gaza has a border with Egypt too, where they are not particularly welcome either…
    So, as a concerned family member, what are the real options here?

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