14 June 2019
I must admit that I am troubled by the nature of discourse about Israel these days.
An issue that used to unite us is now seen as one that divides us. At times, people object to Israeli government policies and actions, seeing them as antithetical to their personal values. Within this context, it is our responsibility to do what we can to strengthen Israel according to our common values, even if this means public criticism and opposition. Indeed, for many, public opposition is an expression of love for Israel and a commitment to work towards its ideals. For others, this discord leads to their distancing themselves from Israel, and a growing question of whether we need Israel to have strong Jewish identity.
For other people, the mere criticism of any of Israel’s policies is taken as a negation of its legitimacy. It is seen as an effort to weaken Israel in the face of an ongoing global threat of delegitimization and destruction. By criticizing Israel, one is perceived as supporting the actions of its enemies. Our job is to support Israel and ensure its survival in the midst of a hostile world. For some, this stance can lead to delegitimizing anyone who is critical as beyond the tent of the Jewish community.
Given these two poles, how could we not argue with each other? We differ in both our perception of and relationship to Israel. Those with extreme views on either side can be loud, and can end up pulling others towards their extremity. While we may not be able to resolve this issue, I hope that we can at least begin to understand one another and energize the vast majority who have more in common than not.
I moved to Jerusalem in January 1968, when I was three years old. Though Israel was celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem and the country’s success in the Six-Day War (a tradition we continued earlier this month for Jerusalem Day), it was also the first time that Israel didn’t feel like it was on the verge of destruction. Additionally, when I arrived with my family, Israel’s economy was struggling. I remember staples like red meat were hard to come by.
After seven years, we moved back to the U.S., but I returned again after high school, as a college student, and many more times throughout my career. In just a few short decades, I watched as the State of Israel came to thrive.
Indeed, ever since returning from Federation’s Israel YOUR Way Mission this spring, I have been thinking about the improbability of Israel. For 2,000 years, the Jewish people dreamed of returning to their homeland. Now, within the span of some of our lifetimes, we have seen our dream come to life.
At The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we want to celebrate and protect the miracle of Israel, even as we create space for discussing ways we can come together and further strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
As one of the survey respondents in the 2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study funded by The Morningstar Foundation said, “The Jewish community needs support for debate regarding Israel issues that is as open and as broad-based as the debate that takes place in Israel itself.”
I could not agree more. The health and strength of our community relies in part on our ability to engage with each other and come to understand each other’s vantage points as we grapple with our own nuanced views. I believe that by helping each other to explore both questions—the one of Israel’s challenges and the one of Israel’s beauty—openly, honestly, and respectfully, with values-based discourse, we will find the answers we are looking for as individuals and as a community. I also believe that the nature of our discourse will have a greater impact on our local community than on Israel. We can engage positively and strengthen our local community or engage negatively and weaken our community.
One thing I can say for sure about Greater Washington is that we are smart, passionate, and principled people. Our greatest resource in determining our individual and collective identities is each other. By engaging each other in conversation, by helping each other get to know Israel and Israelis, we can help chart a constructive path forward and change the nature of discourse for good.
The name “Israel” itself means “to wrestle.” In this next chapter of American Jewish life, we will no doubt continue to wrestle with how we can best shape and support a Jewish democracy in a complex world. But I hope that as the conversation unfolds, we take the time to listen to one another and consider each other’s perspectives. I hope we can seek out the common values we hold—of respect, of deep listening, of seeking nuance, of civil discourse, of community. I hope we never forget how special it is to be living in a time when Israel exists and how privileged we are to be shaping what comes next for our homeland and the Jewish people.