During my close to three years serving as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to GW Hillel in Washington DC, I have learned a lot. Namely, I have learned that using the word “but” is not always the best word choice. Yet for what I want to share, I think it is the perfect word. Let me explain why.
I have grown to love the students I have had the privilege to work with. As Shlichim, we come to teach, and yet we also learn so very much. What has stood out to me over the past few years amongst my students is that when talking about Israel, the word “but” is often a prerequisite. “I love Israel,” they share, and before I can count to three, comes the “but”. The “but” is always followed immediately after with a list of Israeli government decisions, military policies, religious confrontations, and other similar domestic challenges which serve as the antagonist for their “but”. Critique of Israel seems to have become a precondition for support of the Jewish state.
Young Jewish Americans passionately believe that their Israel-related education was biased. They feel they were taught to love Israel blindly, without deep learning of its political reality nor understanding its complexities and nuances. When arriving on college campuses, many of them are faced for the first time with Israel’s critics and defamers. The result is Jewish students being forced to make a choice: either take a step back from Israel or adopt the “but”.
Growing up in Israel, questioning my love for my homeland was never an issue. As Israelis, we simply do not have it in our DNA. Throughout Israel’s 70 years as a modern state, we have learned how to disagree with one another, to praise or oppose the changing governments, while knowing that left or right, religious or secular, one thing we all share in common is deep appreciation to our only country and its irreplaceability. We can think differently and hold other opinions on almost every single issue, BUT we also have the ability to differentiate between our criticism and our love. I also realize it is the reality of our lives that allow us to feel this way. Israel is our home, and it will always hold us within its arms, even on our greatest days of frustration with it. In Israel, we don’t need to say “but” because the complexities and nuance of our society are a given.
Israel must continue to be a significant part of every Jew’s identity. This understanding is the reason why I am here as a Shlicha. Love, support and a connection to Israel should not be without its flaws, but with them, the same way we come to love our siblings, spouses and closest friends.
We understand that Israel, just like any other country, is not yet perfect. And it probably will never reach perfection. But Israel is perfectly ours and we are blessed to live in a time when we have it. As we continue to strengthen the bridge between Jews in Israel and the Jewish communities outside of it, the first step is changing the terminology. The word “but” and its inherent signaling of hesitance are major challenges to begin with. There is not a dichotomy between our Jewish identity and Israel. They live together side by side. Inseparable parts. We cannot take Israel for granted; we owe that to the generations before us that could only dream about it. For them, let’s drop the “but.”