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Letter from Jerusalem: To an Progressive American Jewish Friend

For Jews (and others) struggling between two equally problematic presentations of Israel: ‘Israel, right or wrong’ or ‘Israel is an apartheid demon state,’ comes this Letter from Jerusalem: To a Progressive American Jewish Friend from Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg.  It is a bit long, but well worth the read.  

Dear L——, 
Please don’t give up on Israel. And please give me a chance to explain before you hit the delete button. 
I know, your last e-mail virtually asked me not to write this one. You said that you were tired of news about growing West Bank settlements, stalled peace negotiations and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s bellicose statements. Your daughter says the campus debate between anti-Israel and pro-Israel groups is too shrill to bear. You would prefer to focus your progressive political energies on issues close to home. When I write, you implied, I should stick to updates about my kids. May I mention that my own daughter isn’t in college yet because she’s serving in the Israel Defense Forces, or that last summer, to my dismay, she drew a week of guard duty at a West Bank settlement? 
O.K., I’ll skip family news. I know you are not alone in your despair. In the recent, excellent documentary Between Two Worlds about American Jewry’s internecine battles, there’s a scene in which Daniel Sokatch, head of the liberal New Israel Fund, explains why young Jews are leaving the conversation: “People will walk away from an argument that looks like [a choice between] ‘Israel, right or wrong’ or ‘Israel is an apartheid demon state.’ That is not a compelling paradigm for most young American Jews.” My only quibble is that lots of older Jews are equally unhappy with a debate restricted to those choices.
But I don’t think you can walk away. If you choose silence on Israel, your silence will also be a statement, interpreted in a way entirely different from what you intend. Besides that, “progressive” means “working for progress.” Giving up on Israel because it isn’t living up to your liberal values would violate those values. 
Let me go back. in the American suburb where you and I grew up, “Jewish” and “liberal” were nearly synonyms. As a teenager, I walked our precinct for a Democratic candidate. Seeing a mezuza on a doorpost was a reassuring sign that I’d get a sympathetic hearing. This made our neighborhood typical of Jewish America, then and now. 
More than party affiliation is at work. You and I regard commitment to social justice as basic to our identity as Jews, and we are not alone. Scholars argue about the reasons for the attraction of large numbers of Jews to the left, in Europe, America and elsewhere. Have progressive Jews been inspired by the Torah’s teaching to remember that we were strangers in Egypt? Or, as some historians argue, are their politics a product of the experience of Jews trying to integrate into modern society as a minority? Trying to untangle the two factors, I’d argue, is pointless. We interpret the ancient text in the light of experience—and our experiences in light of the text.
Long before 1948, progressive Jews presumed that if our tribe were ever in power, we would create a utopia, somewhere between socialist and liberal. The prophet of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, promised as much in his novel, Altneuland. The left’s domination of prestate Zionism and the kibbutz-centered PR of Israel’s early decades seemed to fulfill the promise. Back then, Israel’s economic policy was remarkably egalitarian. The gap between rich and poor was small. Inexpensive, nonprofit health care was nearly universal. The Jewish state was a Scandinavian social democracy displace to the Levant. Besides, Israel looked like the underdog in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and there is a reflex to assume the underdog is in the right. 
Hence the bone-deep surprise you feel each time you read a news item showing that Jews, now in charge of their very own country, can be illiberal. Truly, I’m sorry. Israel has a political movement—Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home Party [Yisrael Beitenu]— that builds support by attacking an ethnic minority. It submits Knesset bills aimed at disenfranchising Arab citizens. Israel has fundamentalist parties whose government-funded schools keep evolution and even English off their curriculum for fear of eroding their students’ faith. This year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition pushed through a law making it illegal to call for consumer boycotts of goods from West Bank settlements—a legislative assault on free speech. Netanyahu says he favors a two-state solution, but he encourages settlement construction whose strategic purpose is blocking such an agreement. What is a Jewish liberal to do?
Yes, Israel does face disproportionate criticism. As a tribe we Jews suffer the curse of celebrities: Everything we do gets more attention. Next to the civilian casualties from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the costs of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza pale. Every foreign correspondent who has worked here knows that her editor gets more excited about a minor clash between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers than about a whole war south of the Sahara. But other nations’ cruelty is poor comfort. As the old television commercial said, we feel that “we have to answer to an even higher authority”—be it God or the inchoate spirit of Jewish liberalism. And the news reports from here are not inventions.
The name for the discomfort that American Jews feel while reading that news is cognitive dissonance. That is when “opinions, beliefs [and] knowledge of the environment…do not fit together,” pioneer cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger wrote in his 1956 classic When Prophecy Fails. Festinger described one way in which people reflexively deal with facts that “disconfirm” their belief. They stick to the belief, and try to convince others that it is nonetheless true: “If more and more people can be convinced that the system of belief is correct, than clearly it must, after all, be correct.” Persuade others, and the pain of dissonance fades. So when some establishment Jewish groups try to refute every negative report about Israel, they serve a psychological need as well as a political one. 
A variation is to switch the subject to the external threats facing Israel. In his Commentary magazine broadside last June against rabbinic students “distanced from Israel,” the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis used the trump card of recalling the start of the Six-Day War, when Israel “was seemingly on the very precipice of destruction.” Never mind that Israel’s initial news blackout on its victories in June 1967, while necessary militarily, amplified diaspora fears. “Siege Zionism” plays on a tendency of some American Jews to think of Israel as a replacement for the lost Jewish “Old Country” of Eastern Europe—and to imagine it as a country-sized shtetl about to be overcome by Islamic Cossacks. This image is profoundly ahistorical. It ignores the emergence of a sovereign Jewish state, its military strength and its opportunities for peacemaking—some of which have been seized and some squandered. 
To my sorrow, some Jews take the opposite approach: They accept that their received picture of Israel is wrong—and direct the fury of the betrayed at “the God that failed.” Hence the obsessive anger of some Jewish anti-Zionists.
And yet another response is to try not to think about the problem. As Peter Beinart, former New Republic editor, wrote last year, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now…they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” 
Beinart’s warning was correct, and belated. The danger is that young Jews will not only check their Zionism at the door, but their connection to all things Jewish. The existence of a Jewish country is too large a part of the 21st-century Jewish reality to be excised from Jewish communal life in America. But when students find Jewish campus organizations devoting their energy to refuting any criticism of Israeli policy (including criticisms voiced daily here in Israel), many stay away from campus Jewish life entirely. 
Nor will Israel disappear from congregational life. If you allow the Israel conversation at your congregation to be dominated by the advocates of siege Zionism, you risk letting your community be shaped by the fearful mentality of “the world is against us” rather than by a universalist commitment to tikkun olam.
More than that, as a Jew you can’t avoid taking a stand on Israel in the American political arena: Silence is also a position. As you know only too well, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have presented themselves for decades as speaking for American supporters of Israel—a category that many politicians and lazier journalists treat as synonymous with American Jews. If you say nothing, those organizations are presumed to speak for you.
The bottom line is that you should be working for a better, more progressive Israel and for a more open discussion of Israel among American Jews—a discussion in which supporting Israel includes supporting peace and social change. And the dissonance that makes you want to give up on Israel is a result of two assumptions that I think you will reject once you examine them.
The first is that a Jewish country will automatically be progressive, because that’s how Jews naturally act. Think about it: You don’t believe in the inborn superiority of particular ethnic groups any more than you believe in the opposite, the inherent inferiority of ethnic groups. The Torah does not tell us to remember that we were strangers in Egypt because Jews are instinctively, unequally committed to equality. It repeats that message in a loud drumbeat because we are people, and the natural thing for people to do when they get power is to forget that they were once powerless. 
On the other hand, the only way for people to act morally is to have power over their lives. Israel presents the opportunity for Jews to have power over their lives as a collective—to express our values not just as individuals but as the majority in a sovereign state. The critical contribution that diaspora Jews can make in engagement with Israel is to remind those of us here of the sharp experience of being the outsider, the stranger, so that we Israelis don’t forget where we came from. 
The second flawed assumption is that you should feel tied to Israel only if it is already a progressive country. Think about that word: Progressives are people who work for progress. To your good fortune, Israel is rich with organizations working for change— groups promoting human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, Jewish-Arab dialogue and, of course, peace. In the last several years, American Jewry has seen a flowering of organizations supporting those efforts.
My old friend, don’t give up. Get involved. 
Gershom Gorenberg’s latest book is The Unmaking of Israel (Harper). He blogs at South Jerusalem.

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