All in the Family — Israel and American Jews

As we embark on the secular new year, now might be a good time to take a step back and engage in a little introspection and reflection about the relationship between the American Jewry and the state of Israel.

The modern-day Israel will be 70 this year. The current political leadership of Israel was groomed by the founders of the country.  They are the product of the trials of a nation formed under fire and of compromises forged under existential threat. And we should never forget America has its own long and winding history of compromises and course corrections, a process that is still ongoing today.  America, the shining City on the Hill, is still very much a work in progress and a fragile experiment far from complete or perfect. That ongoing refinement and evolution is an ongoing process that America and Israel share.

Today Israel serves as a sentry on the front-line of democracy and Western values in a neighborhood rife with dictators, autocrats, and failed states.  It is an example of pluralism and social tolerance unrivaled in the Middle East that is remarkable for a country still in its infancy. Israel is a vibrant liberal democracy. Its military sets an unmatched standard for ethics in warfare and champions gender equality amongst its troops. Its politics are free, open, raucous, if imperfect. Most importantly, matters of public policy are argued and debated over the watchful eye of a free and unfettered press and monitored by a legal system rooted in law and justice.

While Israel and America are both liberal democracies, Israel it is not America — it is a Jewish nation — where the concept of separation of church and state the way we know it is not ingrained in its founding documents nor is it part of its historical DNA. That fact is both beautiful and problematic.  Israel is a democracy whose character is different than America’s but we should not want it any other way.

Instead of us in the Diaspora looking to remake Israel in our image through public scolding, hectoring, berating, and outright threatening, maybe we should treat Israel as you would a member of the family.  My Rabbi taught us this past Shabbat that in the traditional Friday night blessing of our sons that a Midrash teaches us we invoke the names of Ephraim and Menashe because they were two brothers who never fought.  We pray each Friday night that this kind of unconditional love be a feature of our own children’s lives.

We who are parents or those of us who have our own siblings recognize that siblings who never argue is a fantasy.  However, it might not be a fantasy for siblings to have unconditional love for one another.   Additionally, whose arguments and disputes happen within the confines of their own relationship, with respect, absent threats and stridency and not within view of the entire world.

That might be what Israel needs from us now — maybe we should look at Israel as our closest relative whom we love and cherish unconditionally.  We can disagree or advocate but also recognize that Israel has been at the center of our peoplehood for more than 2,000 years and we are inextricably linked to one another — like brother and sister. So, if you disagree with her, take a moment to think about if you really need to take to social media to decry the latest kerfuffle for the whole world to see. Or if you really need to swoop in, cameras in tow, to the Kotel to incite a confrontation that is sure to embarrass her. Maybe we need not threaten to remove all our support for her until the government meets our demands. Maybe we should think twice before we issue ultimatums to a country in which our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers are not compelled to serve and die in service of the Jewish people worldwide.

Israel has plenty of enemies to needlessly shame, scold, and berate her — stop by the UN any day of the week if you want to get a taste of that. I suggest an alternate model for American Jewry. Maybe we should prod and cajole all we want — but how about keeping it within the family. There is ample opportunity to become engaged in Israeli affairs through the innumerable Jewish communal organizations here in America and based in Israel, and you can have your voice heard.  Israel is awash in worthwhile charities that touch the lives of Israelis who are in need and that effect civil society. You can even make your voice heard on your next trip to Israel.  Spend some time talking to Israelis you meet about their daily struggles and the challenges in their lives, and tell them how much you care about their safety and well-being.  Make a connection to the land of our people in a way that strengthens that connection not tears at the fissures.

Now more than ever what Israel needs is the unconditional love of a brother or sister whom we cherish but maybe we wish they did things a bit differently from time to time. Let’s trust our brothers and sisters in Israel to get things right for themselves. They have done a remarkable job to date. American Jewry has many real problems and we can spend a good deal of time and focus getting own house in order. But while we are doing that, let’s pledge to proudly declare that Israel is the historical, cultural, and religious center for all Jews forever, and our love for the people and the land is unconditional — full stop. In the New Year, we should love Israel like a sibling and treat her with the respect and honor she so rightfully deserves.

About the Author
Michael spent the early part of his career as a Jewish communal professional, transitioning to work on a wide range of local, national, and international public policy issues and political campaigns, then moving on to become an educator. He has worked in both the for profit and not for profit education and camp sector.
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