Thanksgiving, Tikkun Olam, and U.S. Jews Breaking the Israel Barrier

It's in the direct interest of pro-settlement forces in the U.S. Jewish community to have an Israeli government which alienates as many young, energetic, moderate U.S. Jews as possible.

[Part 2 of a series on U.S. Jews emotionally divesting from Israel. In part, a journal of a recent West Coast speaking tour hosted by J Street]

Norah: It reminds me of this part of Judaism that I really like. It's called Tikkun Olam. It says that the world is broken into pieces, and that it's everybody's job to find them and put them back together again.

Nick: Well, maybe we're the pieces. And maybe we're not supposed to find the pieces. Maybe we are the pieces.

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" (Columbia Pictures, 2008)

On this, the eve of Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking a great deal about Tikkun Olam, human acts which repair the world, words and deeds and decisions which mend and put together what has gone broken, twisted, missing. At root, Thanksgiving is itself an act of Tikkun Olam. It celebrates the bridging of fierce differences, the coming together of seeming opposites, the idea that helping people in dire need takes precedence over barriers of creed and color.

Thanksgiving can also make it all too clear how broken the world has become.

A few weeks ago, I went to America in search of the fault lines of the Jews. As different as American Jews are from Israelis, and the differences are in many ways core-deep, the fault lines are strikingly similar. Here as there, the cracks which keep the Jewish people broken, keep us in pieces, extend to radically differing concepts of the forms Tikkun Olam should take, and radically differing reasons for giving thanks.

This is because the fault lines dividing Jew from Jew extend directly from the Green Line, the pre-1967 war border that divided Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For the purpose of this discussion, let's give these pieces a name. On one side are the Jews of the Wall. On the other, the Jews of the Gate.

The Jews of the Wall are that minority of Israeli and American Jews who sincerely and unshakably believe in permanent settlement in all of the West Bank. Over time, they have become the vanguard both of Orthodox Judaism and the secular neo-conservative Jewish right, whose power and influence, much of it monetary, has American Jewish institutions terrified of their own shadows.

Netanyahu GA - AP- Nov 8, 2010

The Jews of the Gate, meanwhile, comprise the majority of Jews in both America and Israel. They want to see a future partition of the Holy Land into two independent states, a democratic and internationally recognized state of Israel next to a sovereign and independent state of Palestine.

Before coming to America recently, I'd heard warnings from friends in the U.S. Jewish community that the very mention of J Street would spark nasty arguments, attempts to silence dissenting opinions regarding Israeli policies, behind-the-scenes sabotage by powerful pro-settlement donors and organizational professionals, perhaps cancellations of events. I had been warned, as well, that it was already too late. That young Jews of the Gate, liberal in outlook, open in faith, passionate about Israel but conflicted over its policies and disaffected by its explanations, had simply given up and gone, essentially leaving the field to the outnumbered but dogged Jews of the Wall.

In fact, when you consider it, it's in the direct interest of pro-settlement and right-leaning forces in the U.S. Jewish community to have an Israeli government which alienates and repels as many young, energetic, moderate American Jews as possible. It's in the direct interest of the powerful minority of pro-occupation, pro-settlement (let's call them POPS) activists and communal officials, along with a Sharansky-driven Jewish Agency and a Lieberman-driven Foreign Ministry, to have these voices of conscience out of the way.

For the pro-occupation, pro-settlement American Jewish right, it's not a problem that most Jews find the settlement enterprise repellent - it's a godsend.

Following this visit, however, I find myself with renewed reason to be hopeful. More, this Thanksgiving season, to be thankful for. Because the voices of young American Jews of the Gate have never been stronger.

This month, when Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Jewish Federations of North America in what amounts to its annual State of the Jewish Community speech, a group of young Jews issued a remarkable, stunningly poetic counter-declaration to the general message of Everyone But Israel's At Fault. While Netanyahu, the conference organizers and many of its speakers focused ire on foreign critics of Israel and – in an especially unfortunate McCarthyite phrase, "fellow travelers," apparently a reference to Jews who question Israeli policy - for de-legitimizing the Jewish state, the message of the counter-declaration was that Israel's Jewish critics see themselves and should be seen as part and parcel of the Jewish community.

Concurrently, Emily Schaeffer, a Boston-born American-Israeli human rights lawyer and activist, published an essay which clearly signaled to the wider Jewish community that the Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment movement – singled out by a senior Federation official as an existential danger to Israel – had a much more nuanced and complex side than the cartoon villains portrayed by invited experts to the New Orleans gathering.

As the Federation's General Assembly heard plans for a new multi-million dollar Israel Action Network the Tel Aviv-based Schaeffer wrote than "just because a person supports BDS and aspires for major change in Israel does not mean that said person cannot love a million and a half aspects about the life, culture, landscape and even politics of Israel today and historically. Nor does it mean that Israelis need to boycott themselves (something that is neither possible nor part of the Palestinian call). The only thing that is black and white in the BDS movement is that the call will remain in effect until Israel — with a lot of help from its friends — ceases to violate international humanitarian and human rights law."

Last week, after the Boston Globe reported that a Newton, Massachusetts synagogue had abruptly canceled an appearance by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, "because of vociferous objections from some members of the congregation about J Streets politics," the event attracted national attention, and an overflow crowd to the nearby elementary school to which the evening was hastily relocated.

I deeply regret the inconvenience to J Street, and the difficulty that created for them," said Rabbi Keith Stern, the congregation's spiritual leader, who said a small, influential group within the congregation had strongly opposed holding the event. Stern, who attended the school appearance, said I feel badly that people got so exercised here, through a gesture I really believed was about bringing an opportunity to the congregation.

These voices, and many others, have broken the Israel Barrier, the unspoken compact that states that acquiescence to occupation and settlements – without, G-d forbid, using the O word, or the S designation – is the U.S. Jewish community's definition of apolitical, its gold standard for unity.

What I've seen in the past few weeks are unprecedented clashes between the two groups, a new desperation on the part of activists and string-pullers of the Jews of the Wall, and the nascent strength of the Jews of the Gate.

In New Orleans, when members of the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace heckled Netanyahu and held up signs reading that occupation, loyalty oaths and settlements were delegitimizing Israel, they were manhandled, placed in headlocks, and their signs literally chewed to pieces.

A few days later in the Bay Area, an Israeli flag-draped member of a rightist advocacy group, San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs, disrupting a Jewish Voice of Peace meeting, pepper-sprayed two JVP members in the face and eyes.

The attack followed the May vandalism of the Berkeley home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, whose Tikkun Magazine had awarded its annual human rights prize to Judge Richard Goldstone. Among the vandals' messages was one reading "Leftists and Islamofascists are Terrorists."

It makes perfect sense. Just when the Jews of the Gate are engaging the wider Jewish community in fresh ways, the Jews of the Wall are ratcheting up their attacks on them. They thought they had them where they wanted them. Because they want them gone.

The Jews of the Gate drive them bats. Because the Jews of the Gate face the world. The Jews of the Gate face one another. The Jews of the Gate believe in the possibility of a future. They have broken the Israel Barrier. They are being true to what they believe. They are being true to their Judaism and their love of Israel. They are using the tools God gave human beings to repair the world. Their voices and their hands.

The Jews of the Wall, in their drive for uniformity, rabbinical authority, spiritual and genetic cohesion, stand for exclusion. They face the Wall.

They live the past. They translate compromise as surrender. They believe that God's Arabic vocabulary consists of the word No. They will tell you that they believe in negotiations, but ceding any of the homeland would rend Israeli society to the point of the destruction of the Jewish state. They will tell you that the Arabs hate us, Iranians, the Turks, Barack Obama, that they will always hate us. Therefore we cannot withdraw. If God Himself tells us to, we cannot withdraw.

The Jews of the Wall believe that the entire outside world is hostile to them. The truth, one suspects, is the exact opposite.

They can't bring themselves to say what they really mean: The Occupation must persist in order that the settlements grow, and the settlements must grow in order that the Occupation become permanent.

They cannot accept that the Jews of the Gate care about Israel no less than they. And that Israel belongs to the Jews of the Gate every bit as much as it belongs to them. The Jews of the Gate want to see a different Israel, a better Israel. There are many more of them than there are of the Jews of the Wall. And their answers to Israel's problems, to the cliff up ahead are a great deal more reasonable and a great deal more realistic than Shut Up and Gun It.

It's time for the Federations to come clean - they are, to a great degree, Jews of the Gate as well. Next year, at the GA, it will be time to invite anti-occupation people into the tent. Until now, they've never been able to bring themselves to say the word. They can't bring themselves to name the disease. But BDS is a symptom. Flotillas are a symptom. Emotional divestment from Israel is a symptom.

Occupation is the disease.