Once again, alarm bells are going off in the American Jewish community about the seemingly growing chasm between Israel and American Jewry. The recently released Pew survey on American Jews indicated a weakening commitment of American Jews to their religion and to Israel. On the heels of this news, a story emerged last week that the Israeli government distributed, then cancelled, another survey, this one of Israelis in the United States and American Jews. The survey asked these two groups about where their loyalties would lie in case of a dispute between the United States and Israel.
Aside from raising the problematic issue of dual loyalty, the implication was clear: with Israel and the US increasingly at odds over the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, can Israel still count on the unconditional support of American Jews?
More than 20 years ago I asked myself the same question about where my loyalties lay. It was right after the end of the first Gulf War and then President George Bush Sr. was pressuring the Israelis to attend a regional peace conference with the goal of initiating direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, was reluctant to attend and I remember thinking for the first time about where I would stand if the United States and Israel found themselves on opposite sides of a dispute.
Of course I supported Israel; it’s the state of the Jews, the home to our beleaguered brothers and sisters who survived the Nazis only to face implacable Arab hatred. Their struggle was the struggle of all Jews. Israel’s existence is what allowed the rest of us to live without the specter of renewed genocide. My support for Israel was unquestioned. But my attachment was to an abstraction, to a country that I had visited and about which I had learned, yet I couldn’t claim to really know or understand its complexities. But when Bush pressured Shamir, I decided that as a Jew, I would have to support Israel. Several months later, after graduating college, I moved to Israel to see if it was where I really belonged.
The two years that I spent in Israel proved to be defining ones for me. I lived both on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem; I discovered a love for the Hebrew language and for Hebrew culture. Most importantly, I met all kinds of Israelis – secular and religious, Sabras and new immigrants, rightists and left-wingers, Jews and Arabs. I learned the country’s history by talking to the people who lived it on a daily basis. But for the first time, I also was exposed to the realities of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and saw how Israel’s domination of the Palestinians was doing grave damage to both sides. The more time I spent there, the more I began to think differently about “my Israel, right or wrong.”
When I returned to the United States I worked as a speechwriter for Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Ya’acobi. This was during Yitzhak Rabin’s second tenure as Prime Minister, the hopeful period just before his assassination and the resulting collapse of the Oslo peace process he had done so much to advance. I was at the United Nations when Rabin addressed the General Assembly in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UN in October 1995. I watched in pride and amazement as diplomats from other countries lined up by the dozen to shake the man’s hand and praise him for his attempt to make peace with the Palestinians. Ten days later, Rabin was gone, murdered by a fanatical opponent of accommodation who emerged from a hothouse of rabid anti-Rabin and anti-peace sentiment, rhetoric and finally, action.
In the years since Rabin’s assassination, I have watched, though not in silence, as Israel has become less democratic, more intolerant and noticeably more intransigent in its refusal to relinquish the West Bank and allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside it. I have stood in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park and listened to racist lawmakers rail against African “infiltrators.” In Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood I have witnessed Jews attempting to dispossess Palestinians of their homes. And I have listened to Israeli teenagers lecture about how Arabs are “different” than we are and need to be dealt with harshly. Yet I have also spent time with Israelis who bring food and clothes to homeless African refugees. I have survived a katyusha attack on a kibbutz in the North of Israel. And I have consoled Israeli friends who have lost loved ones in terrorist bus bombings.
I am not blind to the complex reality of the region and I certainly do not hold Israel solely responsible for the lack of peace, but I am saddened by what I see Israel becoming. In this sadness I am not alone. As an American and as a Jew, my loyalties lie with democracy, pluralism and freedom. I am now and will always be on the side that upholds these values. If American Jews are questioning their support for Israel, perhaps it says something more about Israel than it does about American Jews.
Today, if faced with the same question that I asked myself all those years ago, I doubt that I would come up with the same answer. The fact that Israel exists is no longer sufficient to guarantee my unquestioning loyalty; my love for Israel is strong enough to insist that it lives up to the values upon which it was founded and upon which generations of Jews have dreamed that it should become.