Intra-Jewish Fissure Over Israel Bubbles to the Surface

What it means to 'be at odds with Israel' is an increasingly vague measure, yet it seems to be more important to Jewish communal gatekeepers than ever before.

On top of the recent canceling by the Washington, D.C. JCC of a talk by an author the organizers didn’t deem kosher enough when it comes to Israel, this week’s New York Times profiled a handful of observant American Jews who have gone public with their opposition to Israeli policies. Or is it to Israel itself? It certainly isn’t to Judaism: One subject who was profiled gets a thrill when the ark is opened at synagogue; another is an acclaimed Talmud scholar; another is a rabbi, and still another keeps the laws of kashrut and the Sabbath.

What it means to “be at odds with Israel,” as the headline declares, is an increasingly vague measure. And yet it seems to be more important to Jewish communal gatekeepers than ever before.

To receive a communal seal of approval, must an individual actually love Israel, simply “like” Israel, or even merely tolerate Israel’s existence? Maybe it is about supporting Israel, but feeling free to criticize its policies. But what if policy opposition runs to Israel’s denial of the Palestinian “right of return,” its maintenance of the basket of discriminatory laws against Arab Israelis, the existence of the Jewish National Fund’s Jewish-only land-leasing policies, and Israel’s Law of Return, the sine qua non of Israel as a Jewish refuge?

Certainly there may be those who think the founding of the State of Israel was a mistake, but support the existence of Israel given that the country already exists. These non-Zionists likely keep their heads down, since for them, the debate is academic and philosophical at best.

But what of Jews who believe that the Zionist political project was fundamentally flawed and are vocal about their view? One might say that any political ideology - even one that has been so intimately tied up with the notion of Jewish safety - should be fair game for criticism. If you agree with this assumption, but still believe that the “red line” of speech should be support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (as both Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie have declared their red lines to be when it comes to who should be heard and who ignored), does this mean you believe in checking one’s intellectual faculties at the door of our Jewish institutions?

There are those who are passionate about the practice of Judaism but who are deeply critical of Israeli policies. There are those who, like in the NYT article, are passionate about the practice of Judaism but are deeply critical of Israel’s political identity. There are those for whom the practice of Judaism is anathema but who may be passionate, secular Zionists. And there are Jews who identify as Jewish by heritage but are neither practicing Jews nor Zionists.

If there are many ways to be Jewish, as they saying goes, then there are many ways to relate to Israel as Jews.

The JCC which I frequent (and, full disclosure, on whose board I am vice-president), includes one mention of Israel in its mission statement, which aims to promote “connection to Israel.”

With a love for the knowledge and transmission of Hebrew language and Israeli culture, and an intellectual appreciation of Israeli politics, I have understood the term “connection” to Israel to be both natural and inclusive for a Jewish institution’s mandate.

But now with debate about Israel swirling at a fevered pitch, I’m wondering how elastic a word like “connection” is actually understood to be by Jewish communities across North American. One of the figures profiled in the New York Times piece expressed his dislike for what he sees as the worshiping of a military state. Another dislikes the melding of religion with nationalism. Yet another is active with Jewish Voice for Peace, a prime mover of the BDS agenda.

Certainly there are many who would seek to ban these individuals from the podium of Jewish institutional conversation. But I would also venture a guess that each of these individuals, plus anyone who has ever talked about Israel at the dinner table, or written about it, or joined an organization seeking policy change, feels some sort of connection to Israel. If they didn’t, why would they care? And if I’m wrong, and they don’t personally feel a connection to Israel, then their intellectual positions will at least force the kind of dialogue that is becoming more and more necessary.

While it is Zionists who understandably feel besieged right now with the “delegitimation” campaign gaining ground, it is arguably the anti-Zionists on whom the burden of argument will fall: how to ask a country to deconstruct itself and reconstruct its core identity, when we all know that there is another solution in arm's reach that could circumvent this more-than-painful demand, while still forging a path of dignity and compassion.

Adam Milstein