Learning to Love the Real Israel

I am writing this article from Jerusalem, where I have been attending meetings of the Va’ad HaPoel of the Jewish Agency and the Agency’s Assembly, leading into the GA. My seat on the Va’ad HaPoel is related to my presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly. Among my fellow movement leaders from all over the world, I am here to represent the interests of the Conservative movement within the workings of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Congress.

On the eve of the meetings, my movement colleagues and I had dinner together, during which we heard a presentation from Dr. Alex Sinclair, director of programs in Israel education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. The title of this article is actually an expansion of the title of his new book, titled Loving the Real Israel. His presentation was relatively brief, but the message that it carried was, I believe, of great importance to all of us whose work includes bringing the imperative of supporting Israel to an often skeptical American Jewish community.

Because of the many remarkable programs that the Jewish Agency is responsible for around the world, and all the good work that it has done, programs such as the Va’ad HaPoel gathering and the Assembly tend to focus on achievement and good feeling. The many miracles of modern Israel, some of which are so fantastic as to be almost unbelievable, are highlighted for good reasons. We have more than enough problems in the Jewish world, and seeing an Israel where miraculous acts of redemption sometimes play out before our eyes is a wonderful feeling. It’s hard to have an argument with that.

But recent studies of the American Jewish community have clearly shown that large sectors of our population, especially the younger cohort, display serious alienation from Israel. They tend to see Israel’s problems and faults far more easily than its accomplishments. They simply are not connected to Israel the way Jews of previous generations most often were, and are lacking that primal connection that was generated by an intimate connection to the Shoah, or having lived through the Six Day War, or Yom Kippur War.

Dr. Sinclair has a simple but critically important thesis. He maintains that we have all contributed to this phenomenon of alienation by being reluctant to teach the “real Israel,” warts and all. In our efforts to transmit not only love of Israel, but more significantly, the ultimate existential importance of a sovereign Jewish state, we have, unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly?), fallen into the trap of being unwilling to address Israel’s faults. Listening to Dr. Sinclair, I was reminded of those voices which, during the days of protest against the Viet Nam war, asserted a posture of “my country, love it or leave it,” as if to say that one who protested America’s policy was less patriotic that one who didn’t. Many protesters against the Viet Nam war protested precisely because they loved America, and were concerned that it was making a terrible mistake.

I think that Dr. Sinclair is right. Whether as a parent, a camp counselor, or a rabbi, I have repeatedly found that the prerequisite for addressing someone’s anger is to validate that piece of the anger that is justified. If someone is upset for a good and legitimate reason, it is worst than counterproductive to pretend that the person is wrong to be annoyed. Once the source of the ill-feeling is validated, it becomes possible to move on.

We all know that Israel is hardly a perfect society. No country is. There are aspects of Israeli policy that make Jews on all sides of the political and religious spectrums furious. I spend a lot of my time as President of the Rabbinical Assembly working to create fairer and more equitable allocation of government funds to all religious streams, something that the government of Israel has been notoriously reluctant to do. There are times when it makes me crazy. But here’s the thing: I love Israel anyway, even when I’m furious at her policies. So many of our younger people can’t get past their frustration with this policy or that one, whether it’s of a religious nature, or treatment of Palestinians in the territories, about which Israelis themselves disagree passionately. We exacerbate that problem when we refuse, either privately or publicly, to admit to Israel’s imperfections, and we portray it as faultless.

Having said this, let me be clear on one thing. Nothing makes me more frustrated than Jews who, in the name of “fairness,” focus only and exclusively on Israel’s shortcomings, and neglect entirely the many achievements of Israel in the face of constant existential threat. There are more than enough legitimate enemies of Israel who are all too willing to focus exclusively on an Israel that they portray as the source of all evil, and their hatred is not going to be eased by any form of validation. There is nothing worth validating in that kind of hatred. When those from our own camp spend all of their energy focused in Israel’s faults, it only exacerbates this problem.

What Dr. Sinclair suggests, as his title implies, is that we must learn to love “the real Israel,” and to teach that kind of love that allows for differences of opinion with Israel, even serious ones, without jeopardizing the baseline commitment to Israel, her people, and her survival. That is a tall order, and it encompasses everything from classroom lessons, to sermons and speeches, and how we program organized trips to Israel. It won’t be easy, but if we want to address that pervasive alienation, we have no choice…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.