Everybody has an opinion. And in Israel, everybody has three or four opinions and they are definitely better than YOUR opinions.
I have plenty of beliefs about Israel too – about the government, the disputed territories, the settlements, the high cost of living, where to find the best sabich, and just about everything else. And those were opinions I had before I lived here.
I have very quickly learned, over the course of only a few short months, that it’s one thing to posit about what Israel should and shouldn’t do from afar – it’s quite another thing when you are actually here experiencing the repercussions of these issues first hand.
Some of my opinions have become more pronounced since I came here. I think that the religious hold too much power in Israel. I really cannot understand it, in fact. Israel lives with a big contradiction – this is a Jewish state trying to be a democracy. But is Israel a Jewish state – or a religious state? Just because one is Jewish does not mean one is religious. Judaism is the only religion in the world that is a religion, a history and an ethnic group. So – what kind of state is Israel? The problem is that it tries to be all things to all Jews. And some Jews have more power – and say – than others.
A Jewish religious state and democracy are antithetical. A democratic Jewish/secular state might work. From my admittedly limited perspective, the Orthodox Jews in Israel are trying to preserve Judaism as a living religion, not just a relic of times gone by. While I am not religious myself, I can understand this point of view. If Judaism becomes only about saying oy vey and celebrating Christmakah, then indeed, something very powerful has been lost. The Jews have not survived for 5,000 years just to lay down their kipas and watch Annie Hall. But we should have a choice, shouldn’t we?
Israel is an opportunity for Jews to honor their Jewish heritage, collective history, religion and values. But what are Jewish values and who gets to decide? I think in general, most Jews would agree that family, inclusion, generosity, tolerance and justice are among a few Jewish values worth preserving. But what about arresting a woman at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl? Spitting at little girls? Deporting Sudanese refugees?
The issue of the illegal Sudanese immigrants pings my American and Jewish moral compass wildly. Born and raised in America, for me, it is totally antithetical that the Sudanese immigrants would be considered, as Bibi himself said: “…illegal infiltrators”. According to Gershom Goremberg, in his article “How Not to Keep Israel Jewish” which appeared in The Daily Beast: “ The “infiltrators” must go, the prime minister explained in the cabinet, lest they “inundate” Israel and “largely put an end to its character as a Jewish, democratic state.”
But wait – I was allowed to immigrate. In fact, like all oleh who exercise the right of return, I was extended a very generous “immigration basket” of benefits. Health care, free language lessons, financial aide. Oh that’s right – I got all this because I am Jewish. Ah – but I am Reform, so barely legal in the eyes of the Orthodox. I cannot get married in Israel. What is this double standard of who is Jewish and who is Jewish enough and whether Israel must be 100% Jewish in order to be Israel?
Did the Sudanese come here because Israel is close, easier to get to and by far the most moderate, modern country in the region? Or did they come because they are running from a genocidal nightmare, just as the Jews did 64 years ago? Who gets to decide? I do not know the answer but to call the Sudanese “infiltrators” when they are refugees looking for respite seems a singularly ugly point of view. The protests and signage in Tel Aviv recently turned my stomach. If only the protesters could be taken back in time to angry villagers demanding a pogrom. Same difference, no?
Is this not a tragic, full circle way of thinking? Perhaps it is time for Israel to accede that in these modern times, it is good enough to be mostly Jewish. If you live here, Jewish or not – and there is of course a Muslim and Christian population, small as they are – you will experience Jewish holidays, social and governmental policies and more. You just will. So – what’s the difference? Why not allow African immigrants to come here and to add to the diversity of Israel in the same way that the Russians did. Oh… because the Russians who came here were Jewish – weren’t they? There is an urban myth (or is it?) that many Russians came to Israel claiming to be Jewish but with no actual proof of that, simply in order to take advantage of the generous social programs available here. But the Russians also brought a huge brain trust with them, according to Start Up Nation, and have been, on the whole, a great addition to this country. So what’s the difference? Who or what is actually being harmed here?
Israel must evolve and not only meet the modern challenges of immigration but also adhere to Jewish values, which is to turn no one away. A saying comes to mind: That which you resist persists. Maybe it is time for Israel to settle into a more positive, less adversarial relationship with itself. It cannot be all things to all people – that much is clear. But perhaps it is time to evolve into the “good enough” nation. The price tag for demanding religious observance, or excluding non-Jews from various rights and services is very high politically, psychologically and existentially.
But that’s just my opinion.