As Israel enters its 70th year of statehood, diaspora Jews are still grappling with whether, and how, we can engage in honest dialogue among ourselves and with our brothers and sisters in the world’s only Jewish state.
We take enormous pride in a society that has persevered and accomplished so much against all odds — military, social and economic — even as it has not known a single day of peace. For many years, American Jews defined the relationship as primarily a financial one, a wealthy community helping its poor cousins across the ocean. More than 20 years ago, Yossi Beilin, then-deputy prime minister under Yitzchak Rabin, sought to redefine the terms of the bond. When he asserted that Israel, its economy thriving, was no longer a “shnorrer,” dependent on our help, leaders in our community responded not with relief but indignation. In effect: “Who does Beilin think he is to tell us how to relate to Israel?”
There have been more efforts in honest dialogue over the years, but in many ways, even as Israel’s economy has prospered, philanthropy has continued to play a major role for American Jewry, in part because there are still serious economic gaps to fill within Israeli society and in part because that’s the way we’ve always shown our support. The other key area of aid has been lobbying for Israel; the fact that AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby, now draws 18,000 people to its annual policy conference underscores the strength and breadth of that commitment.
But even as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the remarkable, if not miraculous, achievement of the Six-Day War and reunification of Jerusalem, we note the growing divide within the American Jewish community over key Israeli policies. In a sense, while the 1967 war had a dramatically positive impact on American Jews, in recent decades the price of victory has taken its toll. Israel still controls the daily life of millions of resentful Arabs, the Jewish settlement movement has grown large and become increasingly entrenched and peace with the Palestinians has proven elusive.
A generational divide within our community finds most of those who lived through the ’67 war — recalling the fear for Israel’s extinction and euphoria over its ultimate victory — firmly supportive of Jerusalem. But younger Jews are distancing themselves from Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians, and/or critical of the government’s move to the right.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli journalist and author, recommends that we be mindful of our audience in talking about Israel. Speaking in New Jersey with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens this past week at a forum sponsored by our Jewish Week Media Group sister publication, New Jersey Jewish News, Klein Halevi said that in discussing Israel with “the outside world,” we should emphasize Jerusalem’s unique position as the only democracy in the Mideast — one, for example, that offers its Arab population more rights and freedoms than any Arab state, and that takes in wounded Syrian civilians and cares for them in hospitals in the north, etc. While it’s important to acknowledge that Israel has flaws, like any country, Klein Halevi said we should challenge Israel’s critics for their bias in judging the Jewish state more harshly than its neighbors and other Western societies.
But he also suggested we let our defenses down a bit within our own community and find safe spaces to ask ourselves some open and honest questions, like: “Who do we want to be in the eyes of our children? Does the government in Jerusalem truly care about peace? With no full resolution possible now, how do we keep the possibility of peace, which we are commanded to pursue, alive?”
There’s a time to defend and a time to probe. Each has its place for us, personally and collectively.