“Looking at Zion” is an online project that aims to present a comprehensive look into the Israel – Diaspora relationship. In order to reach this goal we present a series of questions to members of Jewish communities around the world, asking them to articulate their thoughts and feelings towards Israel.
The interviewee– “A. I prefer to stay anonymous. I have a formal job in the Jewish community and these answers would be damaging to me. I can say that i was born in the late 1980s, and live in the American South.”
In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?
“I was raised learning about the modern state of Israel and visited as a child. I have family there and was taught that it was an important place where Jewish people lived as a majority, sometimes under threat of violence. I was also trained to lobby on behalf of the Israeli government in the US Congress by several organizations. Israel was important to me personally in the sense that it felt like a serious matter that I had a responsibility to learn and care about. I also formed relationships with Israelis through school and summer camp, and these people oftentimes became friends who I cared about deeply. When I became an adult and began to learn that there was much more to the story of Israel than I had realized, I felt a new responsibility to fight for justice for all people who lived there, and this has continued to motivate me despite a lack of success.
“It is a cliche, but a true cliche, that Jewish people more generally seem very divided by age in terms of what Israel means to them. My grandfather recently informed me that he would be buying Israel bonds for my daughter–I had to patiently make up reasons in order to persuade him not to do this. The real reason is that I don’t want money from our family supporting the Israeli government, but I could not say that to him. My wife had a nearly identical conversation with her grandparents a few weeks earlier. All of these people are in their 90s, whereas we are in our late 20s.
“I believe that my grandparents’ generation of American Jews will die truly ignorant of any even slight complexity of what is happening or has happened in Israel vis a vis Palestinians. Their minds are forever locked in the 1960s, and they cannot fathom how or why any Jewish person of any age would feel otherwise. This is broadly true of my parents’ generation as well. In my own generation, attitudes are completely different. It is rare to find a person my age who is a passionate, no-caveats defender of Zionism. Most Jewish people my age are embarrassed by these individuals. And most hardcore Zionists that I know of in my generation are one of two things: paid professionally to hold these opinions (e.g. AIPAC employees), or white people with racist views not only of Arabs but of most non-white people. This is also true of the hardcore Israeli Zionists that I know, generally. The more passionately patriotic my Israeli friends are, the more likely it seems that they are shamelessly racist towards Arabs and other minorities.”
Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?
“Not as it currently exists. I feel committed to transforming the country into a democracy that protects the rights, culture, and lives of its Jewish citizens. I feel equally obligated to transforming the country into a democracy that protects these same rights for Palestinians. I feel that the state of Israel in its current form is an enemy of justice.”
Do you affiliate yourself with a specific denomination in Judaism? What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox denomination in Israel religious establishment?
“I was raised Conservative and this is the environment where I feel most comfortable. However I have worked or studied in both American Orthodox and Reform settings as well. I consider myself essentially post-denominational but also religious.
“I think that Judaism as it is practiced in Israel is somewhat ridiculous, in part because of the domination of the Israeli Orthodox and in part because of the disconnected secular middle, who seem to think that simply living on the land is a Jewish act. (It is not.) That said, I don’t share the intensity of my liberal coreligionists’ concerns about the Orthodox monopoly. It seems silly to me to protest gender segregated prayers space at the Kotel and not race segregated towns and territories. Both are wrong but the latter is far more deadly and unjust.”
Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?
“Absolutely. It makes me embarrassed to be Jewish.”
In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?
“From my time working with Israeli staff at Jewish camp, they of course have deeply ingrained misunderstandings about religious practice, because it is often so warped and extreme in Israel, where one is either all or nothing. I think they also have extreme views of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora, while ironically also believing in several anti-Semitic stereotypes. They perceive non Israeli Jews as weak, manipulative, and rich.”
How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?
“I don’t know what the ‘formal’ policy is, especially as I believe the Jewish Agency’s most recent initiative was dismantled last year, which did not surprise me at all. In practice I think the relationship is for the Israeli elite, those who are in government, to extract as much capital as possible from the diaspora while yielding as little benefit as possible.”
In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?
“I’m sure Israel has this self-conception, but in my opinion it is neither needed nor welcome. Given how terribly Israel is perceived by the rest of the world, the last thing American Jews need is more Israeli interference in our government or lives. It will make our lives more difficult. I believe Bibi Netanyahu’s stunt at the American Congress in 2015 made life for American Jews materially more dangerous. Not that he cares.”
Have you ever been to Israel? if you have, can you summarize your impression from the Israeli reality?
“Yes, I lived in Jerusalem for a year during the first Gaza war and the elections that brought Bibi to power. I think Israelis live in a social/political/media bubble that is unlike anything I have experienced in the US. Your media is censored by the government and the military, and your reporters also censor themselves. They avoid reporting on the millions of people who live under permanent occupation by your military, because they fear to speak to those people and also fear what their readers would think if they spoke of them. Israeli reporting on the world beyond its borders, meanwhile, is obsessed with anti-Semitic incidents, identifying as many as possible and feeding them into a meta-narrative of “the whole world is against us.” Every international item is put into this context, including American media — while I lived in Israel, the only American news station that was widely available was FOX News, which is a complete joke here and well known for being unreliable and right-wing.
“Even liberal Israeli friends are absolutely terrified of Arabs, while most Israelis — who are not liberal and would be insulted to be described that way — are simply racist. This includes my own family. Attitudes towards race and racism in Israel are completely bewildering to me, I felt as if I was living in the American South in the 1950s much of the time. When it was discovered, on a recent return trip, that I was in the country to assist a Palestinian farmer repair farmland that the IDF had partially destroyed, my family literally stopped speaking to me in the middle of Shabbat dinner. It was awkward.
“Increasingly, I simply don’t know why non-Orthodox Israelis bother to live in Israel. During my time there I was amazed at how difficult it was for middle class people to make ends meet. The cost of living is insane, it is difficult to find good jobs for an educated workforce, and everything functions on patronage. And on top of it all, Israelis are terrified of their non-Jewish neighbors and absolutely hate every neighboring country, and are contemptuous of Jewish religious practice. So why live there at all? Why not just move to the US? What is the point? I was very glad to come home.”
Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown? Is it organized? Are there community activities?
“We have a lovely Jewish community here, with six strong synagogues of many denominations as well as some independent communities that do not have synagogues. There is a Jewish day camp in the summer, and many children attend overnight Jewish camps that are five or six hours away. We have Jewish education on the weekends, children have bar mitzvahs, and we have several independent Jewish organizations including a social justice group.”
For more interviews and info on the project go to: lookingatzion.com
Contact the project editor: firstname.lastname@example.org