I’d like to make a wish for this year’s observance of Israel’s birthday: that we Jews of North America suspend heated argument over Israel’s policies for a time; do our best, as well, to stave off anxiety about Israel’s prospects; and allow ourselves — whatever adjective we place in front of the word “Jew” in our identity — to savor the blessing of being alive at this unique moment in Jewish history and experience.
Let’s give ourselves permission to appreciate, without sacrifice of critical faculties or intellectual integrity, how much better Jewish life and the practice of Judaism have become in our generation thanks to Israel’s existence and achievements.
Let’s affirm clearly and without equivocation — no matter what or how strong our opinions about settlements, Palestinian intentions, or the virtues of the chief rabbinate — that our connection to the State of Israel and its citizens is fundamental, nonnegotiable and unbreakable.
Let’s find a way to defend the security and legitimacy of Israel without attacking other Jews — particularly younger Jews — whose positions or doubts about how best to achieve that goal disagree substantially from our own.
Israel is the single greatest project the Jewish people has going right now and, in the last two millennia, the most important arena that has ever been available to put our Jewish values to the test and our Jewish teachings into practice. We need it. And it needs us.
That is the heart of the matter for me. I am a political Zionist who believes that the survival and thriving of Jews in the world, including here in America, depend upon the existence and vitality of the State of Israel. I am a cultural Zionist who believes that the flowering of Jewish civilization in the world depends upon close interaction with the “spiritual center” of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. And I am a religious Zionist who is convinced that Jews are heirs to a unique story that we are responsible for carrying forward and — because of history, tradition, and faith — partners in a covenant aimed at bringing more justice and compassion to the world.
For me, the description of Israel as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” is a prayer, not a factual claim; it reminds us that, as partners to covenant, we Jews have work to do. The sovereign, democratic State of Israel affords unprecedented scope and responsibility for the fulfillment of covenant — the chance to apply the teachings of Jewish tradition to unprecedented circumstances and to join the very best of Jewish philosophy with modern thought and expertise in every arena: health care and education, foreign policy and the welfare system, treatment of non-Jewish minorities, relations of war and peace, and proper stewardship of the planet’s resources.
Israel’s impact, in some respects, has been extraordinary. In other areas, its failings are glaring. The difficulty that Jews and gentiles have in forgiving Israel’s sins and shortcomings testifies to the unusually high standards and expectations brought to bear where Israel is concerned. Jews deeply want the state — which represents Judaism in their eyes — to do right and are sickened when it does wrong. Many Christians regard Jews as the people of God, returned with God’s help to God’s Holy Land and obligated to live up to the demands of God’s Holy Scripture. Some individuals and nations, of course, sorely want to see the State fail and disappear. Israel has enemies. Jews everywhere have the obligation to do our best to guard the chances for success and bring hatikvah, the hope of covenant, to fulfillment.
How can we do that? I want to propose three steps toward the renewed consensus among Jews in North America that I believe are essential both to Israel and to us.
First, let’s do a better job of learning about and talking with Israelis. Both sides have a share in the inadequacy of communication at present. Diverging histories (and ignorance of history) do not help. The gap is exacerbated by differences of language, ethos, political system, and religious patterns. These differences make dialogue between us all the more important. When Israeli government officials write off diaspora communities as doomed to disappear; when Israel’s rabbinic establishment denies the legitimacy of the Judaism I practice and discriminates against the Jews in Israel who affiliate and practice as I do, I feel still greater urgency to talk through our differences. I am convinced we can be partners in putting “facts on the ground” that help fulfill the covenant and make Israel a state that palpably belongs to all of us.
Second, let’s do a better job, as North American Jews, of talking with one another about Israel. Civil discourse has broken down in the United States Congress and, where Israel is concerned, in many synagogues. I suspect the reason for our growing intolerance of each other’s dissent is a combination of hopelessness about the prospects for peace and fear that any criticism of government policy gives aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies. The latter danger is real; I do not minimize it. But we need to talk with one another honestly about Israel, the single greatest Jewish concern of our times. We should not banish any Jews — especially younger Jews — from Jewish tables, nor make them feel that they have no place in our community because their views on Israel seem heretical or their criticism untempered. We need to cut ourselves a little slack where Israel is concerned. Let’s trust Jewish leaders to use community agencies and forums responsibly and help individual Jews, including college students, to develop their own reasons for standing with Israel.
Third, let’s make sure that our future lay and professional leaders have every chance to know the wonderful, bewildering, changing-by-the-day reality of Israel — and so come to love it, each in his or her own way. The Jewish Theological Seminary now sends its rabbinical students not so much to study in Israel for a year as to study Israel in Israel, and to learn how to transmit to others the knowledge and love they have acquired or deepened. At our New York campus, we have placed Israel front and center with programs nearly every week of the year.
These days, it is all too easy for Jews to believe that there can somehow be Judaism without Jews: a Judaism of spirituality, devoid of the claims of peoplehood, collective memory and state. Others, particularly in Israel, believe that there can be Jews without Judaism — that ethnic or national identity is self-sufficient, without transcendent ethical or religious ideals to give purpose to Jewish existence. Both paths, I think, lead Jews nowhere and certainly take us far from covenant. Israel, on the other hand, provides options for fulfillment as yet unexplored, a hope for Jews and humanity that we dare not consign to cynicism or despair.
Let’s embrace that hope — and get to work.
Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.