By Steve Freedman
As exquisitely expressed in the Torah, Israel has inextricably been integral to who we are and why we exist. There is a direct and clear connection between the land, God, and how we should act. This can be found in texts from the Book of Genesis to the writings of Roman Empire historian, Josephus, to poets and rabbis throughout the ages.
During two thousand years of exile, the Jews prayed toward Jerusalem, and we yearned for our return to the land. We never gave up hope that one day the Jewish people would return to Israel. That hope kept us together, no matter where we lived in the world. It was that unabated yearning and love for Israel that allowed Jews to never forget the singular importance of the land to our people.
When Israel was reborn as a modern State in 1948, it was akin to a modern-day miracle. It is where Judaism can be practiced and expressed freely, and the Jewish people represent the majority culture. Israel is where the Jewish people are safe and protected by a Jewish army. It is the home of our language, our culture, our history and our memories. It is a sacred place, and always in our hearts, whether we live there or not.
So what’s the problem with Israel today? How it is looked upon in the diaspora. There is an expectation that Israel should be something other than a normal state. Other countries and people of the world seem to hold Israel to a higher and separate standard. In America, we have done a generation of Jews a disservice by both not teaching about Israel and its importance to the Jewish people, or if we taught our students about Israel at all, more often than not, we taught them the “fairy tale version.” This has resulted in a rift between Israel and a growing number of Jews living outside of Israel – and this is a threat to our people, Jewish unity, and the future of Israel herself. We must recapture the pioneering spirit of Zionism, its importance and its relevance to us, in an honest and sophisticated way.
College campuses are rife with student organizations voting to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. They include University of Michigan, Brandeis, Barnard, George Washington University, and the University of Minnesota. Two weeks ago, at Barnard, Jewish students cast 33% of the vote to divest the school’s endowment from eight Israeli companies. Many other campuses put forth votes, but for now, they were defeated. Simply put, this is misguided.
Closer to home, on Israel Independence Day, an organization called If Not Now When protested briefly at our school before being removed by police from our private property. The organization comprises Jews who somehow felt it was unseemly to celebrate a democratic, free Jewish State.
I imagine all of these same people should boycott July Fourth celebrations, too, and instead protest on that day and divest from any company that does business with the United States. After all, America has several stains on its record associated with brutality, discrimination, and killings. Clearly, this would be absurd! Protesters have a right to express concerns about injustices, but I am deeply concerned by the failure of Jewish schools, organizations, and leaders to provide our youth with the knowledge and tools to engage with Israel, and to represent Israel, is a way that is supportive – and realistic. It is also the responsibility of parents to talk to their children about Israel as well. Children need to hear that their parents value, care and support Israel, even when they have concerns about some of Israel’s policies.
Too many young Jews have no connection or understanding of Israel at all. They go to college with little or no Israel education, and they either abstain from any discussions, or after hearing the Palestinian narrative against the idealized version of Israel that they may have heard about growing up, many end up sympathizing with the Palestinians, and rejecting, or at least excluding, any claims that Israel has a right to exist or live within secure, peaceful borders.
Those supporting BDS and those who participate in movements like If Not Now When, rarely, if ever speak of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge her history, and the many attempts Israel has made to make peace with her neighbors, conceding much of the land in peace agreements. Detractors rarely, if ever, acknowledge all of Israel’s achievements and contributions to the global community, let alone its amazing economic growth against all odds. Anti-Israel sentiment never acknowledges that Israel’s enemies are as committed as ever to her destruction. Iran will not rest until Israel is destroyed, and Abbas’ anti-Semitic rants reveal a leader uninterested in peace or co-existing with a Jewish State. Israel, while imperfect, is the only beacon of democracy in the entire region.
Can Jews be critical and concerned about choices Israel has made? Of course! But Israel has enough enemies. I would like to suggest, as I did a three weeks ago in another blog, that it is imperative for Jews to become (re) acquainted with Israel, and to strive to develop the unique, steadfast, and emotional ties to Israel that have been central to our people, by learning and understanding that Israel is a primary source of our stories, values, and culture. Israel is essential to our identity and survival as a people. History has proven this time and again.
Once we can agree that the existence, security, and freedom of Israel are paramount, and we have made that explicitly clear to ourselves and to our children, then we can open our hearts and minds to the plight of the Palestinians, and work to alleviate their suffering and injustices that are a result of an intractable conflict – perhaps future generations will find a way.
It is vital that Jewish schools, other organizations and the home do a better job teaching about Israel in a nuanced, authentic, and honest way. I implore all Jews to celebrate Israel. To those who would advocate for BDS and other punitive actions against Israel, please acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy. Then maybe all Jews can come together to advocate for the modern State of Israel, in all its complexity, while holding Israel – and the Palestinians – accountable to treating each other fairly.
Steve Freedman is the Head of School at the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. He blogs at Mind and Soul Better Together