Dan Ornstein
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Singing a different tune about Israel

Diaspora Jews should get to know Israelis, not as political abstractions, but as real people, imperfect yet inspiring

The first thing my co-rabbi and I asked our high holiday cantor when we spoke with him on Skype the other day was about the situation in his neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv. “Have things been quiet today?” we queried. “Not really,” he answered with a weary smile. “We were rousted out of bed at 6:30 in the morning by the sirens, but fortunately there were no missiles.”

All three of us pondered that statement for a few seconds, then we turned to our high holiday prayer books to begin coordinating the services that he will be leading with us next month. For the next hour or so, we carried on a very enjoyable, surrealistically normal conversation laced with singing and a lot of laughter. Though our cantor is from a strongly Ashkenazic-European Jewish background, he has a deep sense of the warmth and emotion of Mizrachi music, the liturgical and musical modalities of Jews from Arab countries whose descendants make up a large percentage of Israeli society. As he sang for us and with us, I found myself being drawn into the spiritual power of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just in time for the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul which commences our holy day season.

In retrospect, our conversation with our cantor also resonated with me simply because he is the person that he is: a fellow Jew from Israel who is just trying to live his life with his family; a kli kodesh (Jewish clergy person) whose commitment to Jewish music and public prayer touches the lives of Jews in Israel and will touch the lives of our community in America. He is not a statistic, he is not “the face of Israeli politics,” he is not an example of what is right, wrong, good, bad or neutral about Israeli culture, Israel’s war with Hamas, or it’s tortured relationship with the Palestinians. He is just himself, bound together with the other members of the Jewish family –the “tribe”, if you will -, at home and across the ocean, even as he carries on his own existence.

Because I, like the rest of American Jewry, live on the sidelines of daily Israeli life, I sometimes find myself surprised by the low key protests of Israelis I speak to who tell me that, Hamas missiles notwithstanding, they continue to go about their daily lives. Like ours, theirs involve jobs, raising kids, building marriages, and trying to do some good in the world, along with the pitfalls, mistakes, love and forgiveness that make any life.

Israelis reading this article are likely shaking their heads at the naivete of my brilliant awakening revelation and saying, “Well, duh, what did you expect?” However, my naivete is instructive because it underscores two types of inappropriate romanticization of Israelis. The first type refuses to allow Israel and Israelis to be like everyone else: fallible and never reaching their highest ideals. This refusal is motivated at times by anti-Semitism, at other times by an overly idealistic insistence – particularly but not exclusively by American Jews – that Israeli society fulfill what no one in the family of nations is ever expected to fulfill, as if She were an imperfect eldest child who can do no right. Interestingly, the second type also refuses to allow Israel and Israelis to be like everyone else: fallible and never reaching their highest ideals. This mirror image refusal is motivated by a blind inability to demand of Israel that She fulfill what everyone in the family of nations should be expected to fulfill, as if She were a perfect “baby in the family” who can do no wrong. In other words, Israel and Israelis cannot ever catch a break, because they are either being demonized as the “problem child” or being idealized as the “child who has no problems”, in the court of public opinionation.

This brings me back to our cantor. I assume he is part of some demographic that reflects specific trends in Israeli public opinion, cultural temperament, and political viewpoints, but in some respects, who cares? Why should people in general not let him and the rest of Israeli society just be three-dimensional human beings and communities getting along in the world? Why should Jews in particular not let him and the rest of Israeli society just be family, worthy of that unconditionally tribal, fierce, “dinosaur brain” based, crazy love we feel for our family members in general? Of course, such a complex, mature love demands that we reject two rigid polarities in feeling and thought: the simplistic universalism which always privileges abstract human ideals over concrete loyalties and the equally simplistic particularism which always focuses on loyalty to one’s family or tribe at the expense of moral honesty and universal values.

We recently entered this Hebrew month of Elul, which is supposed to be all about pure, unconditional love and reconciliation in preparation for the high holidays, but right now nothing feels particularly Elul-like to me. Israel has entered another risky, shaky cease fire with Hamas, American Jewish college students are returning to campuses where justice for Palestinians is often used as an excuse for Jew hatred, innocent civilians are the tragic casualties of war in Israel and Gaza, and European Jews are living in terror. What can those of us who are on the sidelines, yet who nonetheless find ourselves in the ring, do to help create a fairer, more balanced, nuanced perspective on Israel and Israelis? Let me suggest three things:

Let’s get to know our fellow Jews who are Israelis, not as political abstractions, but as people with individual life stories, who live and love beyond politics, war and statistics.

Similarly, let’s get to know Israeli non-Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, liberals and conservatives, whose opinions we may find agreeable, disagreeable or even loathsome with respect to anything and everything. We don’t have to like or love every one of them, but we do need to understand their stories and perspectives as well. At the very least we will understand in a more human way the Who behind the What that we reject. At the very most we will understand in a more human way the Who behind the Who we thought we knew.

Let’s commit to going to and spending time in Israel, especially this year when tourism has been hit hard, but in fact, anytime and in any way we can. Let’s not go there to experience the Israel of the popular media; let’s not go necessarily to encounter the Israel mired in the mess of the Palestinians or the Israel molded from others’ starry eyed imaginings. Let’s go to be in the Israel of our cantor and the millions more Jews and non-Jews who are like and not like him, who are born, live, love, hate, protest, serve in the army, and die, who have created an imperfect but inspiring Jewish and democratic society. They deserve the same respectful, realistic attentiveness as every other individual and community on God’s earth.

By trying these things, we might begin and end this coming year singing some very different, more hopeful tunes about Israel, the Jewish people, and humanity.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at