As a member of a Jewish youth group (USY) in the mid-1970s, I remember our advisors often leading us through a “Jewish values clarification” activity about being a Zionist and an American. It was designed to help us gain insight into the inherent tensions of a hyphenated Jewish-American identity. One variation of this activity’s trigger question was, “If Israel and America were on opposite sides of a war, what side would you choose?”
As context, at that time, there was a string of historic events involving Israel the impacts of which were felt in the United States: the June 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the OPEC oil embargo from 1973-74 that caused severe economic disruption, and the 1975 United Nations resolution describing Zionism as, “…a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
Being a Zionist was a kind of Rorschach test for American Jews. Did the images of Zionism make you see yourself as having a binary choice of being Jewish/pro-Israel or American? Or, as our youth group values clarification exercise sought to do through debate and self-exploration, could we feel that being proud citizens of one country (America) was generally compatible with deep feelings for our “Jewish homeland,” despite periodic tensions?
Zionism is once again a Rorschach test for American Jews. There were early warning signs that anti-Zionism was on the march: several Christian denominations that castigated only Israel and not Palestinians for the ongoing conflict; the growing campus “Boycott Divestment Sanctions” (BDS) protests; and, blatantly anti-Semitic articles by the likes of academics including Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
Because of its unabashed anti-Israel platform that asserts Israel’s campaign of “genocide” against Palestinians, the Movement for Black Lives has “called the question” for American Jews: Do you stand with the progressive American social justice movement and against Israel, or do you stand with Israel, which by definition, negates your social justice “creds” and invalidates your alliance with progressive social justice issues?
The compartmentalized explanations about simultaneous commitments to social justice work in America and staunch support for Israel do not work anymore; Jewish organizations will increasingly have difficulties in forming alliances with NGOs and faith-based groups dedicated to social justice causes.
This ultimatum for a binary choice creates a painful dilemma for the many American Jews whose Jewish identity rests upon deeply rooted Jewish values and teachings to address mounting social justice issues (structural racism, economic inequities, literacy gaps — to name just a few). Some, most recently like American Jewish historians Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld, have let personal ideologies override historical facts and publicly renounced their Zionism. As Jonathan Sarna incisively noted, their ideas are naively delusional (and I would add, destructive) propaganda. But because they are scholars of American Jewish history, their personal animus against Israel creates pressure for other American Jews to “act bravely” and renounce Zionism.
While Diner and Feld’s agenda is to undermine American support for Israel within and outside of the Jewish community, there are many American Jews who love Israel, but are justifiably weary about having to defend Israel’s actions before their peers. Israel did not seek the wars that led to its conquest of territory. But fair or not, after 49 years, the Israeli government is a co-owner of the indignities that Palestinians, who are entitled to sovereignty, suffer every day. Especially under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administrations, the Israeli government continues to promote an environment that chills democratic values out of a free and independent press, and funds right-wing religious bigotry, courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate. So American Jews who care deeply about Israel, like many Israeli citizens, have ample reason to to express disapproval about the direction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation.
And that is why I worry that as an American Jewish community, we are losing our collective ability to withstand the trap of the binary choice of either being with social progressives and against Israel, or with Israel and against social progressives. Extremism has taken root on the left and the right in the American Jewish community. Often, the American Jewish left looks blithely past the realities of living in Israel and raising a family: Intifadas, knifing attacks, bus bombings, vehicles turned into weapons of mass destruction by plowing into crowds of pedestrians, withdrawal from territories that lead to greater violence, ISIL at all of Israel’s borders….At age 18, American young adults complain about not having enough “safe spaces” for troubling ideas in college classrooms. At age 18, Israeli young adults worry about safety for their lives as they enter mandatory military service. It’s easy to talk about all of the failures of another country that you don’t visit, let alone live in, from a safe distance of 6,000 to 8,000 miles away.
At the same time, the American Jewish right often ignores the indignities of daily life for Palestinians, even those that can be more easily ameliorated, with a justification that there are, “no partners for peace.” Maybe there are no partners for peace, but what actions can Israel take to try to cultivate better relations and the possibilities for having future partners for peace? There are more than 200 retired senior officials from Israel’s security agencies who believe that “launching an Israeli regional initiative is essential, possible, and urgent.” They assert that, “…a two-state solution can be implemented and sustained while providing both Israelis and Palestinians with the security, sovereignty, and dignity they deserve.” What special military and diplomatic insights does the Jewish political right wing have that makes them dismiss statements like these?
The mutual extremism of the left and right only reinforces the unsatisfactory status quo because vitriolic attacks against “the other side” don’t demand new and divergent ways of thinking. They only make people defend their failed positions.
I’m in Israel now. It’s a relief being away from the degrading political scene in the United States, and having some momentary respite from news about violence continuing in communities across America. But even on my days of very low feelings about the current state of America, it would never occur to me to label America as thoroughly evil country responsible for all of the world’s ills. There is still a lot of goodness in Americans, despite the tremendous amount of corruption in politics. I’m not blind to the shocking social problems that are besetting us as Americans. But would I renounce my faith in America and abandon hope in believing that we can make progress? Absolutely not!
That leads me back to memories of my youth group values clarification activities. I’m still a Zionist, but a more mature one: aware of some dangerous tendencies today in Israel, and equally aware of Israel’s tremendous achievements despite its location in a region that makes it ever vulnerable. That means that I won’t support any progressive cause that has aligned itself with those who seek to legally dismantle Israel’s right to exist by using the kind of intentional, malicious rhetoric found in the Movement for Black Lives platform, but I will support other progressive groups that don’t make taking an anti-Israel oath a prerequisite for involvement. Nor will I support any right wing groups that dismiss the reality that Israel occupies territories that have a Palestinian majority, who are ultimately entitled to statehood (which every Israeli government has affirmed, since the Oslo accords in 1993 to this very day) or refuse to take greater steps to increase chances for the implementation of the two-state solution.
I’m on firm ground in staking out the desideratum of holding on to the tensions of being a proud American Zionist who cares about progressive causes. Between the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, there are 10 weeks, each with specially designated haftarot. The first three are rebukes to the Israelites by the biblical prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, for immoral and unjust behavior. These three prophetic portions are then followed by seven others expressing hope and consolation about the redemption of Zion through justice. Three prophetic portions about rebuke, and seven about hope. Coincidentally, recent brain science suggests that a person needs an average of about six messages of positive feedback in order to accept one piece of constructive criticism, approximating that ratio of positive to negative feedback during this 10 week period.
Dinar and Feld claim that we are not sufficiently self-critical within the Jewish community. They are not only wrong, but they misconstrue the purpose of criticism or tochekha that this 10-week period gets right. Self-criticism isn’t a goal, but one of the tools that leaders use as a springboard for striving closer toward Jewish ideals of peace, justice, and an overall better condition for all of humanity. So while I have deep disappointments in the lack of progress toward a two-state solution (just like I have deep disappointments about so many problems in America today), and I will lovingly express them, I won’t make statements that feed distorted, destructive narratives about Zionism and Israel. There are enough other people who are happily doing so already.