Gasping For Air In Israeli Discourse

I love the ocean.  Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific.  Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses.  From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly.  I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago:  caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.

This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.

On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Iran is the most obvious of these threats.  Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race.  It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah.  Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel

Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists.  Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth. 

Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs.  Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women.  Who was that country?  Not Saudi Arabia.  Not Sudan.  Not Nigeria.  Israel. 

These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel.  Period.

On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government?  In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.”  I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”

Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state.  He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.”   Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.

Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights.  Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands.  Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population.  Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”

So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies.  Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance.  How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)?  The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason.  Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel?  As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?

The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations.  It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation.  Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East.  Israel is my spiritual and moral home.  As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard.  I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality.  Am I expecting too much?

So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it.  I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity.  I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.

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