A recent article in Israel’s Makor Rishon newspaper (identified with the conservative and national-religious element of the Israeli public) quoted a well-known New Jersey rabbi criticizing the foreign ministry for allegedly not being able to explain the Jewish right to Israel.
"They have a hard time explaining the right to Tel Aviv" he is quoted as saying. "They have no answers. They can’t explain why we are here."
Of course, the esteemed rabbi is in Teaneck and not in Tel Aviv, but he needs to look closer to home before sounding off against people who actually live in, and fight and sacrifice every day for Israel.
One wonders why an intelligent, educated Orthodox rabbi needs the foreign ministry to explain to him why Israel has a right to exist, but if he does not know why, he is not that different from many of the young men and women living in his community.
Having taught scores of day school graduates studying in Israel, some of whom were from the rabbi’s own congregation, I can attest that for many, their knowledge about Israel’s "rights" begins and ends with "the Torah says so."
While that may be fine for some American rabbis and those whose future lies in the Orthodox enclaves of New York and New Jersey, that simply won’t cut it for people who did not grow up spending Saturday evenings in a neighborhood kosher pizza shop.
Not everybody grew up in Teaneck and not everybody sees Israel as a natural part of his or her lives. As one foreign ministry official remarked, "It appears that the rabbi has little experience speaking with people who don’t agree with him."
There are indeed people who, notwithstanding the biblically derived imperative of living in Israel that the rabbi will hopefully fulfill one day, do not accept Jewish law as binding on themselves or on the rest of the world. For us Israelis, these are the people that the foreign ministry must speak to. And the message needs to be sincere, accurate and most of all, effective.
That message will not be that Palestinian Arabs can have rights as citizens, but not the right to vote, as suggested by the rabbi. Nor will it be negating the right of self-determination for Palestinian Arabs while asserting that right for Jews. And it cannot be that while Israel’s prime minister declares he will accept a Palestinian state, the rabbi from Jersey says "no."
Jews indeed have a biblical right to Israel and it is something that should be taught to Jewish children, and they should be proud to accept and understand it. But there is much more to Israel than just a biblical right.
As students who have been fortunate enough to be exposed to education about modern Israel know, Jews have a historical connection to the land of Israel that created a movement, Zionism, that fought for Israel’s legitimacy based on international law. The battles the early Zionists fought were with guns and bullets but also with pen and paper, resulting in internationally binding resolutions dating back to the San Remo conference in 1920 that established the "right" of Jews to self-determination and a state of their own in Palestine.
Of course, the foreign ministry knows that, but it also knows that right is being challenged today by a myriad of initiatives that include offensive Facebook postings, calls for boycotts and sanctions, and an educational system in Palestinian schools that simply does not recognize the rights of Jews to live anywhere in Israel.
What anti-Israel activists have learned to do is ignore history as well as Arab racism and apartheid, and instead speak to the world in the language of human rights to gain legitimacy for their cause and to strip that legitimacy from Israel. Notwithstanding the hypocrisy and dishonesty of these activists, Israel is now seen by many often naive and uninformed young idealists as an uncaring bully who denies Palestinian Arabs freedom and independence, "rights" that today few disagree with.
If simply presenting the "truth" and distributing "facts" were all that is needed to reverse the image of Israel’s illegitimacy, the task for the foreign ministry would be simple indeed. But as is often the case with dogmatism, one does not have to convince those already convinced and one will never convince those that don’t believe.
The spirit of Israel’s rights for Jews is based on the bible, but the reality of its existence for the rest of the world is dependent on international law. Just as the spiritual message of the bible needs to be translated into a language that others can understand, so must Israel’s diplomatic message be delivered in a language the rest of the world can comprehend.
In the years I have spent teaching young Orthodox Jews to think rationally and speak effectively when it comes to Israel, they have learned to discriminate between emotion and reason and distinguish rhetoric from logic.
What they have learned, and what the rabbi still has not, is that crafting a message for Peoria is not the same as preaching to Teaneck.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD, directs Israel-Arab studies programs for American students in Israel. He now also coordinates a public diplomacy initiative based in Jerusalem.