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Dear Sophie, Israel has failed you

The first step in engaging a generation of Jews troubled over where Israel and Zionism are heading is to acknowledge that they do indeed have a valid point
Background image of IDF soldiers in West Bank, on February 10, 2017 by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90; Montage by The Times of Israel
Background image of IDF soldiers in West Bank, on February 10, 2017 by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90; Montage by The Times of Israel

The Israel Advocacy Forces are in overdrive. The talkbacks are humming with experts ready and willing to attack any criticisms of Israel, especially accusations of apartheid, with an arsenal of facts and figures proving the injustice and spuriousness of the allegations: the critics of Israel are antisemitic, applying double standards; they ignore context and lack nuance; fail to take into account the decades of peace overtures on the part of Israel and their rejection by the hands of Palestinians, and so on.

These efforts have borne fruit as every one of our North American and European political allies has rejected Amnesty International’s preposterous accusations. Yet we are still losing the next generation of young American Jews, as powerfully modeled by Sophie Balmagiya in her blog post, Dear Israel: End the Occupation or Force A Generation of Jews to Abandon Zionism. Indeed, it’s actually the talkback army’s fact-based defense and antisemitism allegations that are turning them away. These messages are working with the pro-Israel untroubled committed, but they are alienating the pro-Israel troubled committed and pushing them into the camp of the uncommitted.

Increasingly, the response to Sophie and her fellow progressives is to simply dismiss them. They are leaving anyway through assimilation. Sophie is not a “good” Jew, so who cares?

I care. I care because if the Jewish people separate from each other, the foundation of Judaism and the Jewish people is undermined. I care because I care for every Jew and want them to love Judaism and Israel and be inspired by them.

We all need to engage Sophie and her generation. The challenge is how.

Like Jews of all ages, some are not blessed with an abundance of Jewish and Zionist knowledge, but this deficiency is neither the source of their angst nor the antidote to their “troubledness.” The untroubled committed defenders of Israel fail to internalize the fact that the source for Sophie’s distress is Israel’s current policies and not a lack of knowledge or commitment.

She is troubled because Israel is no longer acting as if the Occupation is a temporary condition, to be tolerated until peace becomes possible. Instead, Israel is talking about annexation and creating facts on the ground through settlement building and expansion, which are making it impossible to end the Occupation. The fact that Israel offered peace and a two-state solution in Oslo and its aftermath, and the Palestinians said no does not justify Israel’s failure to initiate a single peace plan since 2005. Israel should be presenting its plans for peace again and again and again. It is also true that things are complicated, but the complexity defense does not justify a litany of occupation power abuses unrelated to Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

If we care about the next generation of Jews and their relationship with Israel – and we should care – we need to talk differently. Let me try.

Hi Sophie,

Thank you so much for writing. I need to begin with an apology. My generation, whose hopes were shattered by the demise of the Oslo Accords two decades ago, has been in a PTSD fog for too long. We tasted the end of the conflict and dared to believe that our children would have a new and better future. We have been too slow in getting over our deep sense of mourning and loss. As a result, we have spent much of the last two decades angry: blaming the Palestinians for saying no, and defending Israel from any critic who dared to blame us for the “situation.”

While protecting Israel from those who would not admit to how “complicated” the conflict was, we essentially stopped pursuing peace; stopped thinking about Palestinian rights; stopped envisioning a different future, and failed to put in place policies that could make it possible. We failed you, and are bequeathing to you a Zionism with which you cannot engage. The problem is not that you failed Judaism 101 or Zionism 101, but that you rightfully care about the essential Jewish values of justice, kindness, and equality. That you believe that all human beings, created in the image of God, are deserving of respect and care. That you rightly believe that if the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty, so should the Palestinians.

Many tell me it’s too late. They argue that progressive forces in America aligned against Israel and Jewish white power, now control you, and we cannot combat that large cultural trend. But you chose to write. You reached out. You have proven that it is not too late – even for someone who has spent more time in churches than in synagogues. 🙂

I deeply apologize for the current state of affairs which I have helped to preserve, but apologizing is not enough. Are you willing to work together? Can we forge a new partnership in building the Israel that the Jewish people deserve? An Israel that is not merely marketable to your generation, but an Israel worthy of our people, our values and our mission? Yes, an Israel that works tirelessly to end the Occupation?

The Zionism that I grew up with, which entered my soul and inspired me, was founded on a simple core value – Justice. Justice for our people and justice for any and everyone who lives in or is within the sphere of Israel’s control. I am a Zionist because I believe that the Jewish people have a right to our own home. A right to the independence, peace and security afforded to other people and nations in the western world. At the same time, – “what is hateful unto you do not do to others.” I cannot claim justice for my people without demanding and pursuing it for the Palestinian people.

We have allowed Zionism to stray from its core moral foundations, its reason d’etre. Let’s reclaim our purpose and work together to implement it.

One last word, which I hope you do not find paternalistic. One of the most painful lessons that I learned post-Oslo, is that we can do many things right and at the same time fail. We can work to establish justice as the cornerstone of Zionism, engage Israeli partners and advocate for policies that will bring the Occupation to an end, and still fail if the Palestinians do not reciprocate. At times, reality is indeed complicated.

You haven’t experienced an Oslo-like failure. The reason, however, is that you have grown up with an Israel that has stopped trying. So let’s embark on this journey together knowing that there is no certainty as to the outcome. As our tradition has taught, it is not for one to complete every task, but neither is one free from trying. We need to know that we have done everything that we can, and at times that has to be enough

Thank you for loving Israel and for hopefully giving my generation another chance.

Sincerely yours

Donniel Hartman

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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