As we finished celebrating Chanukah, I could not help but think about the fact that 70 years ago, Chanukah was quite different for the Schonfeld family. Seven months earlier, in May 1944, my father and over 30 members of his family were deported to Auschwitz. Somehow my grandfather saved my father, and my grandmother survived separately–but more than half our extended family was wiped out–and our family lost everything that made up their comfortable existence in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine).
It is not surprising that this history has influenced our family in countless ways.
That background framed all of our reactions as we watched the events of this past summer unfold in Israel, Gaza, the rest of the Middle East and Europe–and even parts of the United States. We were horrified (but unfortunately not surprised) by much of the world’s protests and condemnations of (or lectures to) Israel regarding its conduct during that conflict and everything that has transpired in its aftermath. We have been further disheartened by the events of the last few days and weeks.
As I think about Chanukah 1944, when my ten year-old father still had to endure five more months in the concentration camps because there was no place of refuge for Jews, my faith in Israel and my belief that we need to do all we can to strengthen our ties to it–whether we live there or not–becomes even stronger.
I have sat around the American Jewish communal table for many years, in a number of settings, and my wife and I have raised three boys who all went to or currently attend Jewish Day School. And yet, from my perspective, Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, seems to be diluted. There seems to be an increasing inability to simply state that we love Israel or admire Israel. We first have to point out the flaws in Israeli society or the peace process and then express our feelings–or vice versa.
A certain tentativeness has taken hold. Some even advocated for not speaking about Israel in synagogues this past High Holiday season. Others, like my own Rabbi, spoke eloquently about Israel.
Israel, by most measures, is a great country. In a very short period of time, it has accomplished many things to make the world a better place–things we Jews can all be proud of. All of us Jews stand a little taller–wherever we live–because of Israel.
Lately, in the Jewish community, some people complain that we must we support Israel without criticism. One also hears that a critical comment about Israel is clear evidence that a person does not truly care about Israel. Both of these arguments present false choices.
Some will say this is semantics–but I disagree. The dialogue has become so tense…so unforgiving, that it tears at the communal fabric. Israel has been at the core of Jewish thought and practice for thousands of years. Now that we have regained a Jewish homeland, and have the privilege to live in these times, our community should emphasize pride and passion–and respectful dialogue.
I am by no means advocating for a Jewish version of “America, love it or leave it.” I recognize that Israel has imperfections, problems. But then, what country in the world does not?
When most of us discuss America and cheer for America at ball games or other venues, there is never an immediate qualification or sheepishness. We just love this place–but it also doesn’t mean that America can’t improve itself either. There just isn’t any of that self-consciousness. It is also not there when conversing with Italian-American, Greek-American, Irish-American, Chinese-American or any of the other hyphenated ethnic groups one inevitably meets in America.
Many educators and leaders navigate these waters–but more need to do so. All of us need to do so. It is possible to frame our educational programs and communal discussions in such a way that we celebrate Israel’s many accomplishments and work together to solve problems from the perspective of a caring family member.
To some, this may all sound naive, but I don’t think so.
Our legacy, as the survivors leave us, cannot be one of division and tentativeness. 70 years ago….Chanukah was indeed different.
We have to be proud of who we are and our affection for Israel. We need to find ways to reframe our Israel discussion, to strengthen what should be an everlasting and lifelong commitment to Israel–our homeland–and to our extended Jewish family.