This past month I exchanged emails with a bright, Jewish American rabbinical student living in Jerusalem who grew up in my congregation, whose family are life-long Zionists, and who has become disheartened by recent events and trends in the state.
She rightly perceives a growing corruption of classic liberal Zionist principles, is shocked by growing racism in Israeli society, dismayed by the Israeli government’s conceptualization of the situation with the Palestinians, befuddled by ongoing settlement building and home demolition in East Jerusalem, and horrified that a liberal democracy can tell Israeli Arab citizens that they can no longer work in Israeli Jewish communities because they pose a “security threat.”
She is fearful that demagogic and oppressive forces are gaining popular currency in Israel and that the Israeli government is increasingly intransigent in dealing effectively with its many challenges.
She is disheartened, as well, that the chief rabbinate maintains coercive hegemonic control over religious life in the state, and she wonders whether it would be preferable to give up Israel’s Jewish character for the sake of preserving Israel’s progressive democracy.
All these trends have caused her to emotionally disengage from Israel, and she confides that she feels like a heretic and does not know what to do or how to think about Israel going forward.
In response I am writing this open letter not only to her, but to all American Jewish liberal young people who are feeling this disconnect with the state of Israel.
First, I want you to know that I am proud of you, of your critical thinking, of your commitment to live an enriched Jewish religious and ethical life, to be a learned Jew, and that you yearn to make sense of what Israel means to you.
Second, you are not alone. Shabtai Shavit, a former director general of Mossad, recently wrote about his similar concerns about the “future of the Zionist project” and the threats against it in the region and international community. Shavit harshly criticized Israel’s political leadership’s “…haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict [Israel-Palestinian] into a holy war.”
Shavit worries that “…large segments of the nation…have forgotten…the original vision of Zionism: to establish a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel…” and that “the current defiant policy [of settlement building] is working against [this vision].”
He called upon Israel to enter into conversation with moderate Arab nations (i.e. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and negotiate, based on the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, a two-states for two peoples resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will augur, as promised in the plan, the complete normalization of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab and Muslim world.
Shavit concluded soberly: “I wrote the above statements because I feel that I owe them to my parents, who devoted their lives to the fulfillment of Zionism; to my children, my grandchildren and to the nation of Israel, which I served for decades.” (Former Mossad Chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism – Haaretz, November 24, 2014 – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.628038)
As a rabbi who has served American congregants for 35 years and been an active Reform Zionist all that time, I wish to offer ten additional thoughts to our young liberal American Jewish community, as well as others, if this applies:
1. You are not alone in your worry about the dangers to the Zionist dream;
2. You are not alone in your concerns about the unequal treatment of Arab citizens of Israel;
3. You are not alone in your anger about the hegemony of the chief rabbinate over the lives of all Israelis;
4. Israel is far more than Jerusalem which is becoming increasingly more ultra-Orthodox and right-wing. It is also Tel Aviv, a society that represents modern Israel that can inspire you anew about Israel’s past, present and future;
5. Israel is not a “racist society” though there are Israeli racists, a distinction with a significant difference;
6. Remember to appreciate that Israel remains a vital democracy despite its flaws and its current (but resolvable) status as an occupying force in the West Bank;
7. Don’t be cavalier about Israel’s real security threats, but do not accept at face value that those threats necessarily legitimate every policy executed by this government as smart, right, democratic, and moral;
8. Don’t forget that many Israeli liberal organizations monitor and fight injustice in Israel and the West Bank;
9. You must be able to hold at once your conflicting thoughts and feelings about Israel while maintaining your active engagement with her;
10. Despite your disappointment, anger and frustration, we cannot afford for you to disengage from Israel. Though we are not Israelis and only Israelis can make the decisions vital to their lives and security, we liberal lovers of Israel need you to become our next generation’s leaders in American Zionist organizations that advocate for the democratic, pluralistic, nation state of the entire Jewish people.
Theodor Herzl’s famous statement is still true and instructive – “If you will it, it is no dream.”
We need you to keep the faith, and become the advocates that Israel deserves and we and the Jewish people need.
Note: There is something that you can do from the States to help make the change that we want to see in Israel. We are approaching elections for the World Zionist Congress which is Diaspora Jewry’s only democratic mouthpiece to directly affect what happens in Israel. These elections help fund our movement in Israel, and have significant political and institutional repercussions. This is one easy way to have our voices heard. Go to www.reformjews4israel.org