Last week one of my students sent me a You Tube video that portrayed Israel in a very unflattering light.
She is one of fifteen Jewish teenagers learning how to advocate for Israel through the Israel Leadership Fellows Program, a local collaboration of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. The program is in its pilot year.
The video, made by a well known anti-Zionist, honed in on the Sudanese refugee issue and how Israel has handled it.
“How do I respond to this?” she asked.
And so ensued an email exchange in which I tried to give her context for understanding what she saw.
It is fair to ask whether Israel has done a good job of planning how to handle the African refugee issue. Based upon the conditions and crime in South Tel Aviv, it would appear not.
It is also right to believe that the Jewish nation has a special responsibility to provide asylum to people fleeing for their lives, as we have been in that position so many times ourselves.
But- and there is always a “but” with complex issues- there is a limit to how many refugees any country can absorb, especially a small one. The demographic issue is relevant. No country will allow unlimited immigration, especially from an enemy country.
There are Israeli organizations that are working to help the African refugees, but not one appears in this video.
No sympathetic voice is heard in this video, and there are many such voices.
If the filmmaker wished to portray Israel in the worst, most racist light he succeeded in doing so.
I think that the best response is a nuanced one. We hold Israel to high standards while recognizing that it is not perfect. This is one area with room for improvement and where there is a role for activists.
The exchange ended with her writing:
“This video made me realize that I usually think of Israel as a perfect place, but really it has problems just like any other country. Although, because it’s Israel, I feel like the problems are always blown up to shine a negative light on Israel.”
“I think of Israel as a perfect place.”
Well, it is not a perfect place. It is a real place. But before young people can grapple with that, they need a very strong base of knowledge, Zionism, and love. Our people’s return to its ancient homeland is a modern day miracle.
What Israel has achieved in just sixty-six years, sitting in the most hostile of neighborhoods, should inspire awe, gratitude, and a sense of shared destiny.
But first that foundation must be established. Only then will the young person be able to grapple with the reality that Israel is not “perfect”. No place is.
This brings to mind the way that little children need to put their parents on a pedestal as the smartest, strongest, and best. With maturity they begin to see them more realistically, flaws and all. By then, the love and the relationship are usually strong enough to withstand the scrutiny. If you had normal, decent parents, maturity means loving them in all of their flawed humanity
The same is true for a mature love of Israel. No pedestals. Because once you place something or someone on a pedestal, the only place they can go from there is down.
After a full year of learning about Israel’s history, challenges, and astonishing accomplishments, my students are coming to the hardest part of their study- how to deal with the issues that show you Israel is not perfect.
Next week each student will have three minutes to speak to the class. For two minutes each one will talk about an Israeli issue that is uncomfortable for them. They must explain why this is a tough topic- and they must offer a nuanced view that puts the issue in context. Because when talking about Israel, context is everything.
I am certain that Israel can withstand such critical examination and that the students can handle it too.
And the third minute? Each student must explain why Israel matters to them.
Balancing critical examination of Israel’s flaws, informed by knowledge and context, with a deep love for our Jewish homeland, is what all of us need.
We also need a healthy sense of perspective to cope with the relentless media scrutiny that Israel and those who love her contend with. And a little humility. We never know as much as we think we do, especially when we are half a world away.
As we celebrate Israel’s sixty-sixth birthday this week we need perspective for one more reason- to never allow ourselves to be so preoccupied with Israel’s flaws that we take for granted all that is good, wondrous, miraculous.