‘Distancing” is the current favored word to describe the reaction of many American Jews, especially young Jews, to the ongoing situation in Israel. (Curiously, Peter Beinart’s essay in the New York Review of Books in May 2010, which catalyzed much of the conversation, nowhere uses the word.) But “distancing” is inadequate to describe the range of response to diverse alarming events in Israel. Herewith, two examples of that range, and a suggestion of how we might productively proceed.
Temple Israel, now more than 150 years old, has long been and remains today Boston’s landmark Reform congregation, refusing to rest on its many well-earned laurels. Its four rabbis recently saw fit to write to all their synagogue’s members explaining the need to initiate a series of conversations about Israel. Three reasons explained the need, the rabbis wrote: Mentioning the word “Zionism” at Temple Israel has come to make an otherwise relaxed environment tense; some parents have begun asking why Zionism is being taught in the religious school; a growing percentage of members “wonder as to Israel’s importance in the evolution of their lives.”
The congregational conversations (there have now been two) came as the synagogue launched a three-year adult education program on Israeli politics, culture and history, dating from biblical times. (The kickoff speaker for the series was Peter Beinart.)
Whatever else the T.I. experience signifies, it is hardly an example of “distancing.” It is, rather, about engagement, but in a manner that takes account of Israel’s unfolding reality.
As I travel about and meet with Jews of diverse backgrounds, I am again and again reminded that many of them feel compelled to choose between two narratives they perceive as competing. The one sees Israel as a nation besieged, surrounded by a newly unstable array of Arab states, facing the murderous wrath of Iran and the all-too predictable hostility of the United Nations, increasingly alone in the family of nations. The other sees an Israel that daily finds new ways to shoot itself in the foot; that betrays its democratic commitment with gleeful disdain; that countenances discrimination against women and against its own Palestinian citizens; that becomes more illiberal, hence more alien to the dominant American Jewish temperament each day.