Who Does Israel Stand For?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a speech by the Times of Israel‘s own new media editor, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, at B’nai Jeshurun on West 86th Street in Manhattan. A large group of congregants came to hear her, among whom was a man who stressed, during the discussion that followed, his independence from the Jewish state and its government, suggesting that it didn’t represent him or his views. I didn’t respond, preferring to listen to the reactions of the other individuals at the session. Afterward, on my way home, I thought about these comments and began to wonder myself: Who does Israel stand for? Who does it represent?

As a Jew whose mother and grandfather raised money for the country in its nascent stages, I’ve always had a soft spot for this relatively new, still-growing democracy, a land of both peace and conflict, of controversies and resolutions. I’ve always viewed it as a place where people who share my culture and faith have journeyed to rediscover their roots, to build and find support among each other, to defend themselves against the injustice that they have historically faced, and to form a modern community that aims to serve as a bastion of righteousness in a world where that goal has so often been dismissed. In other words, I’ve always perceived Israel as another home, my ancestors’ habitat—and a locale that I would back no matter what, through thick and thin, rich years and poor times, under duress and through prosperity. I’ve never considered that other Jews might not think that way.

And yet, some do. At the discussion yesterday, I became aware of this disparity, and it dismayed me. Why would another individual who subscribed to the same religion as me find the idea of supporting Israel as alien as pastrami on white bread? Did he not realize all that it means in the hearts of the Jewish people? Did he not have the same longing for it?

I suspect this person is in the minority; most Jews I know and have grown up with have been great advocates for the state, despite disagreements they may have with policy and administrations over the years. But there are members of the tribe who perceive Israel in a negative light, who look at it the way a resident of a large, cosmopolitan city might view his cousin from the boondocks: as a superficial, credulous hillbilly, uncouth and prone to bigotry, not representative of his culture or upbringing … and certainly not subscribing to his belief system. This is definitely a fallacy that smacks of sophistic reasoning—and perhaps even a kind of self-effacing anti-Semitism—yet it’s something proponents of the Jewish state have to acknowledge. This line of thinking exists. And Israel isn’t doing anything to assuage it.

I don’t agree with all of the country’s policies. I’ve found it harder and harder to support the continual building of settlements in the West Bank, though I find the tendency of those who oppose such initiatives to demonize all settlers as villains as specious and simplistic lines of thinking—generalizations that don’t take into account the needs and sensibilities of individual personalities. It’s obvious, however, that there are folks who do not hold Israel in the same place that I do, and somehow this issue should be recognized. They are alienated, isolated, content within their own homes, without the yearning for the land of their forefathers. Perhaps that cannot be faulted; one thing Israel hasn’t done enough of, in my opinion, is speak to members of the Jewish diaspora who think this way about its importance in our collective identity, in the fabric of Judaism and its history. This isn’t an easy sell … why should a person who grew up happy in his or her own homeland want to support a nation of complete strangers who only share his or her religion? Shouldn’t people be more concerned with liking friends and family because of personal traits, not universal ones?

Here’s what I think: Israel’s policies may not represent every Jew, and we may abhor the violence that consumes it on a continual basis, but it still serves as our soul, our heart, and the object of our national dream. It does stand for something: our desire for the homeland our predecessors left centuries ago, a locale saturated with our culture, our faith, our tenacity—which has kept us alive through the years despite myriad attempts to destroy us. Denying the importance of this country in the fabric of Jewish existence is like denying a part of one’s heritage, disassociating oneself from an all-encompassing part of a person’s humanity, and for me, that is akin to loss, blankness, the transformation of skin into a shell without substance, without context. It is the detritus of complacency, of being directionless. No matter what, Israel will always be a part of the Jewish moral spectrum. And like it or not, it does stand for what we aspire to: success and perseverance. It is our own symbol. It is our special, unique character.

At some point, perhaps in a more stable time, Israel should reach out to Jews in the diaspora who don’t feel any affinity to the country. It may be impossible to love an entity if such affection isn’t ingrained in one’s consciousness, but a respect and understanding of the Jewish state’s appeal in the minds of many could be stimulated with just a little conversation. The talk Sarah Tuttle-Singer made was one such way this outreach could take hold. I hope there will be many more such discussions in the future.

After all, Israel itself came to be after years of dialogue and negotiation. It’s a fundamental portion of our tradition. And it certainly stands for us.

Let’s stand for it as well, in the same stalwart fashion it’s done for our people, too.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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