This was printed in my temple's last newsletter.
In the wake of another cycle of violence in Gaza, a friend asked me: “why is it that the one issue that should unite us, divides us? Why is it that the subject of Israel can be so divisive in the Jewish community?” I did not have a ready answer for him at the time but, after some reflection, this is what I’d say.
Let me start with my story:
Twelve years ago this summer, I moved to Chicago. This began the path that led to citizenship, marriage and family life. The arrival of the miracle that is my daughter, gave me pause to think about my time in this country. I have had the privilege of witnessing historic advances in the status of Jews in America: When, in 2000, Joe Lieberman ran as Vice-President, many Jews told me they were concerned. “It’s not good for a Jew to be so prominent,” they said. More recently, when Senator Lieberman ran again as a presidential candidate against Barak Obama, the same people were not nearly as worried. Today, three out of the nine of the Supreme Court seats are filled by Jews; the President’s closest advisors are Jewish.
While I am thankful to be living at this unprecedented time for Jews in this country, I pray that this is the fulfillment of the American dream and the Jewish vision where all people have equal access to the halls of power. The prominence of the Jewish community should be the harbinger for a new multicultural and multireligious America, Would that we were just the first of many peoples and religions to attain such prominence in public life.
As you may know, I moved from my native England to Israel as a child. My youth was spent in Jerusalem, where I went to college after completing my three years compulsory service in the Israeli armed forces. I moved to the States to settle in Chicago in 1998. Even though I had received an earlier offer to leave Israel and settle in the U.S., I declined. My life was in Israel and I saw my future there. Of course, there were many things that were irksome about life in Israel – the annual month of reserve duty in the army, the ever-present threat of war, the periodic outbreaks of violence in the country, not to mention the crazy driving, but, having moved already from one country to another I knew enough to understand that the grass only looks greener when viewed from a distance. Every place has its issues.
The early 1990s were a wonderful time of hope for Israelis and Palestinians. Israel elected Yizhak Rabin Prime Minister, empowering the former military commander to make concessions to the Palestinians and strike a peace treaty. Our horizon of expectations expanded beyond anything we had previously dreamed. On the world stage, Israel became a symbol of hope. Proof that peace can overcome longstanding conflict.
And then came the killing of Yizhak Rabin. In November, 1995 an anti-peace Jew shot him. I was present at the scene of his death, a peace rally in Tel Aviv. When we heard the gunman’s shots we ran for cover. This killing was the sad conclusion to a hate-filled year. It had a chilling effect on all of us who had supported Rabin in his drive for peace.
This also began my reluctant farewell to lsrael. I was drawn to the United States’ because of its clearly enunciated belief in the rights of all people. We would not have a Black president today without this Constitution. Israel has a collection of so-called Basic Laws that functions as a constitution. These Basic Laws that enshrine Jews’ rights – unfortunately, at the expense of non-Jews. It has no Constitution that guarantees the rights of all people.
As a cultural Zionist, I treasure the contributions that Israel has brought to the Jewish people and the world: the renaissance of Hebrew, the social experiments, the rich diversity of Israel’s 80+ distinct Jewish cultures, its music. As an Israeli, I feel privileged to have had so many formative, rich experiences in that country. The Jewish community in Israel continues to be a powerful case of cultural diversity that works. And this could be the start of a truly multi-cultural society – one that could teach the rest of the world how to bring a staggering array of world cultures together in one society.
But only if Israeli multiculturalism transcends the boundaries of Jewish Israel and reaches the other 50% of its residents – the Palestinians. Because, in practice, Israel has not lived up to the high hopes invested in it. The underlying ethos that provides preferential treatment to Jews and legal system that enforces systemic injustice against the non-Jews of Israel/Palestine routinely produces terrible outcomes. Recently, this has resulted in violent suppression of non-violent protests, in discrimination, and in the ongoing denial of basic human rights for millions of Palestinians.
How can there be lasting peace without justice? The State of Israel was built on the British promise of “a Jewish homeland in Palestine”. The Zionist project came into its own with the promise of coexistence, not, of Jewish hegemony over all of Palestine. The great Jewish scholar and Zionist leader, Martin Buber wrote at the time of Israel’s inception, in the spring of 1948: “We need time and freedom for our enterprise, and not in order to gain the upper hand…Not in order to become stronger than others, but solely that we should be able to shape our lives….There is need for a treaty [with the Arabs] based on faith.”
Some 60 years later, my beloved Israel, is strong. Yet, its strength need not come at the expense of the other half, the non-Jews of the Holy Land. The building of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel is the fulfillment of the prayers of generations of Jews: the unending discrimination against those who are not Jewish is nowhere to be found in the prayerbook.
Israel looks to us for support. How do we give Israel what we enjoy here? For me this is the hope that all people of the Land of Israel have the same rights as us: be it freedom of movement, the right to an education, the right to live out one’s culture and religion in freedom. Whether it is in Gaza, the West Bank or within Israel’s own borders, these rights are universally granted Jews and denied non-Jews.
Over the summer, during Shabbat services in the garden – I have invited you to discuss our feelings about Israel’s actions, to share knowledge about Israel. To meet as Jews in the common ground we all share. I invite you to continue the conversation, if you like, with me, or in your homes, around the family table.
And so, the thought that occurs to me in response to the question of why Israel can be a divisive subject in the Jewish community is: it is precisely because Israel is the common ground we all share, that this will necessarily be the arena where we will either agree, or disagree. The challenge - that I welcome - is how to create a safe place, a big enough place where all Jews can express their thoughts, their hopes and their commitments on this vital issue. How can I learn to listen respectfully to someone who has a different understanding, How can I learn from that encounter and deepen my relationship with that Jew. Perhaps our communal challenge is: how can we learn to live with diversity while strengthening the bonds of friendship.
May the coming year bring the peoples of Israel/Palestine peace and justice and may we, as Americans, discover ways to help them.
With best wishes for a good New Year –Shana Tova!