Collateral Damage When We Can’t Talk About Israel

He said, “I’m not—I mean, I support Israel’s right to exist and everything, it’s just—it brings up so much stuff.”

At a party recently, I met a man who, when he found out that I am a rabbi, began to tell me about his Jewish life.  (This is what usually happens—I expect veterinarians hear about people’s pets all the time. I like it—I became a rabbi partly because I enjoy talking about Jewish life.) He told me that he doesn’t go to services, because every time he hears the word “Israel” it just brings up lots of feelings he doesn’t want to think about.

I asked if he feels that without Jewish communal prayer or synagogue involvement, something is missing from his life. He said he’s not feeling great that his two young kids aren’t getting a Jewish education. I suggested that the word “Israel” in our liturgy doesn’t have to refer to the physical land, and that in many cases it doesn’t—it refers to the Jewish people or to a metaphorical Promised Land. He said yes, he knows all that, but it doesn’t help. He added, “I’m not—I mean, I support Israel’s right to exist and everything, it’s just—it brings up so much stuff.”

I didn’t press him to explain further, but the conversation is an indication of the harm that comes from our inability to discuss Israel openly and honestly in the American Jewish community. The situation in Israel is complex and painful. It is difficult for anyone to see what a path to peace might be. The question of how Israel can remain both a Jewish state and a democracy is painful, because most of us want it to be both, but aren’t sure that it can be in the future, when it seems that non-Jewish Arabs will probably outnumber Jews in the country (if a two-state solution is not reached).

Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The wounds from the destruction of the 1,000-year-old Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe are still fresh, including a sense of betrayal by nearly the whole world—those who weren’t doing the killing still allowed it to happen, and denied Jews a place to escape to. This happened less than a lifetime ago. Of course, in response, so many Jews believe we must have our own country, our own place that will take us if we are betrayed and attacked in the country we were born in.

Our feelings are so strong that disagreement seems dangerous, and many of the discussions of Israel among Jews in the United States devolve into accusations of Jewish self-hatred, lack of support for Israel or racism. It’s no wonder that Jews avoid the topic, or feel they don’t even want to hear the word “Israel.”

We are harming our fellow Jews by being unable to find compassion and understanding, in a paradox in which we feel threatened and like we are shrinking, and respond by alienating those we could be in community with.

One of my congregants, Sophia Salguero-McGee, helped to found the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding (CERRU) at Queens College in New York City. The work she and her colleagues are doing, sometimes in the face of opposition and controversy, can show us the way forward. CERRU teaches people how to listen to one another to build understanding.

May we learn to open our hearts to others, remembering that alienation is painful on all sides, and may we try to come together more as a community by pulling each other closer instead of pushing each other away.

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