President John F. Kennedy quipped that “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Little did Kennedy know that he was foretelling the current state of the Orthodox community’s Israel discourse: steadfast convictions and little to no rumination. A few months ago, I asked the administration of my Modern Orthodox high school for permission to invite famed journalist Peter Beinart (who I serve as a research assistant to), a self-proclaimed Zionist who is critical of the Israeli government and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza, to share his views with us. My request was denied, and not on the premise of financial limitations, but because of who he is — a known critic of the Israeli government. And I presume it would be denied in almost all other schools like mine. My school’s refusal to allow Beinart to come and speak heightened a concern of mine that had been brewing for quite some time; we have been led to believe that Israel is a utopian, elysian society and anyone who may differ with a variety of Israeli policy is not only viscerally wrong but a sinner. In the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, we are taught: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding’” (Psalms 119:99) By silencing those whose positions challenge our own, and ignoring this verse altogether, are not we the sinners?
I am proud to be a part of the Orthodox community; a community that champions unconditional love for the State of Israel. A community that drapes Israeli flags over its back; a community that overwhelmingly spends a gap year studying Torah in Israel; a community that eats falafel and Israeli style food to embrace Israeli culture; a community that donates to causes that support the medina; a community that dances together on Israeli independence day; a community that prays together for the well-being of the State, its soldiers, and its citizens; and a community that much too often mourns together over the deaths of victims of terror. Our connection to Israel is inviolate, but we need to begin to educate our community and not perpetuate blind endorsement. This key endeavor ought to begin with our Jewish-Day schools making fundamental changes in the way they approach their Israel “education”. No more utopism. No more propaganda. No more dehumanization of Palestinians. And no more hiding the Occupation.
Let me be clear: I am not aiming to espouse any political agenda. I am, however, deeply concerned about my community’s Israel discussion, and feel the need to express my thoughts.
Our community’s discourse requires dramatic improvement in two main areas. First, we need to understand what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Does questioning policies of the Israeli government make one anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? Does not conforming to every policy of the Israeli government make one an “anti-Semite” or “self-hating Jew?” Of course not! So why is it when Peter Beinart who I know to be a proud Jew and supporter of Israel, criticizes the Netanyahu government for their right-wing policies he is automatically deemed illegitimate and labeled a “self-hating Jew” by many in our community? Would they dare say the same about Rabbi Steven Pruzansky who lobbied Capitol Hill opposing Israel’s disengagement of Gaza, and was relentlessly critical of the left-wing Rabin government during the Oslo process? The question answers itself. And that is because just as those who express their dissatisfaction with an American President are not necessarily anti-American, those who criticize the Israeli government are not necessarily anti-Israel. Let’s not conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Instead, we must learn to distinguish legitimate criticism from criticism that which may cross the line.
Second, we need to begin to acknowledge reality. It is time that the Orthodox Jewish community recognizes the hardships that ordinary Palestinians have suffered (note that recognizing their grievances does not mean condoning violent measures of resistance) and continue to suffer as a result of the ongoing occupation. (admittedly, much because of the faults of their leadership). I understand that some may find the term “occupation” undue, so let’s make the following distinction: while these territories may not be “occupied”, as I believe they undoubtedly belong to the Jewish people, in these territories Palestinians live under de facto Israeli rule with no representation. It would be hard to dispute that, although some try to. Though Palestinians do have some sort of autonomy as a result of the Oslo Accords, in the West Bank, Israelis live under one set of rules, while Palestinians live under another. Israeli’s have the right to vote for the government that controls their lives; Palestinians do not. If Israelis are suspected of a crime, they are sent to civil court where they have protections under the law; if Palestinians are suspected of a crime, they are sent to military court with zero protections under the law- not to mention a conviction rate north of 99%. Here’s the point: students in our community are woefully unprepared to engage in thoughtful dialogue on the current situation in the West Bank, but it’s not their fault. It is the fault of our educators and community leaders who, in large part, fail to ever acknowledge this reality. And that’s a problem. As Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at the Forward said, “If the Jewish community doesn’t want to see elected officials supporting BDS, then we need to speak up about justice for Palestinians on our own terms. We need to make our voices heard on this issue, and not cede this crucial cause to the far left. The time is now!” We must understand that we do not have to choose between justice for Palestinians or security for Israelis. And we must understand that “making the case for Israel” does not mean delegitimizing Palestinian grievances at all costs. The complexities and moral conundrums of the current situation in the West Bank are not discussed nearly enough; in fact, I feel as if they are being avoided.
Ari Shavit, in his highly acclaimed book, “My Promised Land”, accentuates that “The Israel question cannot be answered with polemics. As complex as it is, it will not submit itself to arguments and counterarguments. The only way to wrestle with it is to tell the Israel story.” While current Israeli advocacy programs serve a purpose, they fail to make students critical and independent thinkers. Be certain that because of Israel’s remarkable story and its near-perfect moral standing, our students and our community will only feel a greater sense of pride and attachment to Medinat Yisroel. Through a comprehensive, honest, and rigorous education, students will naturally ask questions, seek answers, grapple with moral dilemmas, and just as we are told in Avot, they will become wiser.