I serve as the director of the “Israel Government Fellows” program, a ten-month program for top Jewish graduates from around the world, run by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. The program combines work experience in the Israeli government and NGOs with weekly educational seminars where we bring speakers from, inter alia, the worlds of politics, academia, business and the media to discuss the various issues facing Israeli policymakers, Israeli society and the wider Jewish world.
Our philosophy is that the best way to connect smart young Diaspora Jews to Israel is to encourage them to think critically and to understand the complexities, rather than give them “hasbara” lines to learn. We do not push a particular political position but help our participants to reach their own conclusions, after hearing from all sides of the Israeli political debate. We are, however, unapologetically Zionist and promote an Israel that is proud of its Jewish heritage; committed to being part of the liberal, democratic world; and uncompromising in defense of its citizens and in the global fight against anti-Semitism.
The following is extracted from a speech I gave at the recent graduation ceremony of the 2014-2015 class of the program – comprised of 15 young people from the US, Canada, France, the UK, Brazil, Argentina and Bulgaria.
Through our weekly seminars and our trips around the country, we have tried to show you every aspect of the challenges and dilemmas that face this country. We’ve discussed successes and failures. And, just to make things even more complicated – the same event or policy will be a success for one Israeli, and a failure for another.
For some of you, being in Israel was a reaffirmation of your already strong Jewish identity and convictions, for some of you it was something of a pilot to possible Aliya, for others it was an exploration – a journey of discovery into a part of your history or your identity that had not yet been explored.
But all of you learned that we are a people, with roots in a particular land, with a history and traditions and a particular language.
You learned that this is an old/new country. Altneuland: The title of Herzl’s novel about a new Jewish state in the ancient land of the Jewish people.
If you are able to cast your minds all the way back to the second day of the program, you’ll remember visiting the excavation here, on the grounds of the Begin Center. The remains found there date back approximately 2900 years. And the inscription on those remains is Birkat Hacohanim, the Priestly Blessing. The exact same words said then are said today in synagogues around the world, and said by Jewish parents to their children on Friday nights.
So we Jews are connected not only in space – across countries and continents. But also across time – with our grandparents, great-grandparents and all those that came before us.
Before you formally complete the program I have two requests to make of you. The first is this: That you think about your own commitment to continuing the Jewish story, in your own way.
To be a Jew is traditionally to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. It is to be faithful but to question, to be skeptical. Not to give in to pessimism, but also never to be content with the status quo. What other people or religion believes that the Messiah will come, but stresses that he may take his time in getting here? In other words, we shouldn’t be waiting around for the prophesied world of justice and peace. We should be doing what we can to create it.
You can and should be proud to be American, French, British, Brazilian, Argentinean – but proud also to be Jewish, to be writing your own chapter in the Jewish story.
And there is nothing as remarkable or as extraordinary in this story as the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. At the same time as holding whatever opinions you hold about this or that Israeli policy or action, you need to keep in mind that bigger picture. That in the same decade that a third of the world’s Jewish population was wiped out in a crime so terrible that a new word – “genocide” – had to be introduced to define it, the Jewish people returned to sovereignty in the same land where they had ruled 2000 years ago, and for which they had prayed all of that time.
So Israel is a 67 year-old country, for a 3000-year old people. It struggles with the weight of its history, and the pressures of modernity – of combining its Jewish character with its democracy. And of course there are the threats of its enemies, which remain very real. But Israel’s achievements are many and remarkable. Its self-development as a modern economy, a world leader in hi-tech and medical technology, a thriving cultural life, its contribution to humanitarian assistance overseas… I could go on.
Despite all these achievements, we have not shown you a perfect Israel. That reality remains for the far-flung future. What I hope we have done is to get you thinking about what we have to do get there. In any case, the question is not whether you think Israel is perfect, it’s whether you want to be part of the story.
Israel is the home of the Jewish people, not only historically, but also in the very important way, defined best, I think, by the poet Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in“.
You will all have reached your own conclusions about Israel, but my second request is this: Whether or not you choose to exercise your right to become a citizen here, that you retain your connection to this place; that you fight for the Israel that you want to see, whilst also defending it from its many detractors.
It is legitimate of course for Israel to be criticized like any country – and you’ve heard plenty of Israelis do it during the year! But don’t let anyone get away with stating, or implying, that Israel should be judged differently from all other countries; that Israel is to be held up as some kind of malign influence in the community of nations, as the Jews have so often been demonized as a people. That’s not criticism. It’s something else. And we recognize it for what it is because in our long history as a people we’ve seen it too many times before.
I’m asking you not so much to be Israel advocates, as Israel educators. You now know much more than most people in your own countries do about the situation here. A fundamental point, that too many ignore or reject – and I’ve already referred to it – is that we are not interlopers here. We are not imperialists. Here in this land are our roots. Here in this land is our history.
Reasonable and thoughtful people will argue – as do many Israelis of course – for an Israeli territorial withdrawal to implement a two-state solution. But let no one get away with the claim that all that is required for peace and harmony in the region is for Israel to leave the West Bank. Even those who are convinced that handing over this territory is the right thing to do, should be educated about the significance of Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people. And do not leave unanswered the claim that it is simply an intransigent Israel that is preventing peace; that there is a democratic, stable partner on the other side that readily accepts the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty in even part of this land.
An Israeli withdrawal may or may not be the right move, but it is not a panacea. And it is not risk-free – particularly in today’s Middle East where power vacuums are very easily filled, not by the forces of democracy and modernity, but by ruthless and savage extremists. Too many of Israel’s critics, even some of the best-intentioned, see the solution to this conflict as essentially straightforward. It is not. And, whatever your personal views about what should happen, you all know that.
Most of you will be returning to your home countries and I ask that you do so as ambassadors. Not advocating or spinning Israel as a paradise, but educating. And I hope that you will always carry with you your connection to this country.