Thoughtful piece on how to direct our energies on Israel.

Engaging Israel: Beyond Advocacy By Donniel Hartman(09/03/2010)

Since Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent Goldstone Report, there has been an increasing sense that anti-Israeli opinion has moved beyond criticism of some of Israel’s actions and policies to the delegitimization of the Zionist project as a whole. ….

In Israel and throughout the Jewish world there has been a marshalling of forces to develop materials, programs, and new advocates to make the case for Israel. The aim of these programs is to combat distortions and present Israel’s side of the facts. However important and valuable these efforts are, they often fail to achieve their end. When the case for Israel is grounded only on a factual narrative it is often unconvincing to those who hold a counter factual perception. In general, positions are rarely formed purely around facts, but rather by ideological, moral, and psychological propensities which then construct factual narratives to reinforce the preexisting commitment.

The concentration on the above form of Israel advocacy, while valuable in educating the completely uninformed, overlooks an audience which in my mind needs to be a major focus of our efforts, and for whom current Israel advocacy either is unnecessary or ineffective. I am referring to the mainstream Jewish community itself, which has been raised to care about Israel and is now finding that the foundations of its connection is being undermined.

The reality is that the majority of committed Jews, for the most part, lack a language to understand or articulate their feelings about Israel and their desire to continue to support it. This leaves them vulnerable and exposed by the campaign of delegitimization, for they do not possess a framework from which to combat it.

The reason for this predicament is the fact that since its inception the standard arguments for support of Israel amongst world Jewry no longer resonate with most Jews, especially those 50 years and younger. These arguments can be divided into three. We must support Israel either because:

Israel is necessary as a safe haven in the event of a new Holocaust;
The survival of the State of Israel is in danger;
Israel is a central ally in the West’s war against the “Axis of Evil.”

Besides being mutually contradictory, a common feature of all three as stated is that are increasingly irrelevant. Most Jews in North America feel increasingly at home in their societies and do not feel called to combat the urgency of the threat of a potential Holocaust. Secondly, their political consciousness regarding Israel was not formed by the angst preceding the Six Day War, or by the precariousness of Israel’s existence exposed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Their first war as adults was the war in Lebanon in 1982 and then there was the Intifada. They were raised on the story of Israel’s power and military might. Protecting Israel from its “stronger” neighbors is not a meaningful or persuasive argument. Finally, as voting patterns in the Jewish community in North America have revealed, most do not see the war against the “Axis of Evil” as either central or compelling to their lives and an enterprise to which they want to contribute.

It is time for us to recognize that the Jewish community in general and Israel in particular have failed to develop a new Jewish narrative for the Jewish people around the world on which to base their relationship with Israel. Jewish organizations and Israel have held steadfast to the three arguments above for they were successful in creating a crisis-centered relationship with Israel which was effective in raising money. These actions, however, have mortgaged our future on the altar of immediate and short-term institutional needs. Repayment is now due, and the resources are lacking.

The Jewish community is not in need of an Israel advocacy campaign of facts and figures alone, but also of a new Jewish narrative based on Jewish ideas and values for engaging Israel in a way that will help integrate Israel into a modern Jewish identity. Jews today need to be able to address crucial questions for which they currently do not know the answer. For example: What is the role of “peoplehood” in modern Jewish identity? What is the meaning and purpose of Jewish sovereignty connected to territory rooted in the land of Israel to modern Jewish life? What are the requirements of morality of war, and how can Israel use its power in a way that is consistent with the highest standards of Jewish morality and values? How does Israel balance its legitimate right of self defense with the rights of others? Can a Jewish state be reconciled with the values of Jewish pluralism and freedom? Does the aspiration for a Jewish state automatically define Israel as a racist, apartheid state?

These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed and answered by this new Jewish narrative of Israel and Zionism. If one cannot answer them, there is neither a foundation for connecting to Israel nor the ability to sustain a viable and meaningful relationship. We need to educate and empower the Jewish community to engage Israel in a meaningful way before we can even think about asking them to advocate on its behalf.

Israel has been formed under almost impossible conditions and is still a young and deeply imperfect democracy. Not only are we not beyond criticism, we are in dire need of committed voices within our community who will lovingly challenge Israel to not accept the status quo and to continue to strive higher. If engaging Israel will be successful it will be so only because we will find a way to integrate commitment to Israel within a larger Jewish value conversation and invite people of all political and religious sensibilities to be engaged and participate in thinking about and shaping the unfinished experiment which is modern Israel.

About the author

Rabbi Yonah