For the public honor of lighting the Diaspora Torch at Israel's upcoming 72nd Independence Day ceremony, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs chose Lori Palatnik. It’s an understandable choice.
After all, Palatnik, a rebbetzin born in Canada who splits her time between Israel and Washington DC, is an energetic ba’alat teshuva [returnee to religious Jewish life] who was a founder of Momentum (formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project), a Birthright-like project aimed at introducing young Jewish mothers to Israel. But those seemingly wholesome credentials are not quite the whole story.
Palatnik also believes in an uncompromising pursuit of happiness and joy, and for whom complaining (which she often reframes as "whining"), is anathema. As she advised married women: "Don't blame and don't complain, refuse to put up with whining...it does not endear you to your partner [or] encourage him to come home early."
The rebbetzin is right, if not necessarily when it comes to marriage, then when it comes to politics. If you want to endear yourself to the Israeli government, don’t blame or complain: instead, cheerlead. Voice strong support for all current policies, regardless of whether they are unjust or misguided, focus only on marveling at the miracle of Israel’s existence, and the Israeli government will rush to embrace you. Publicly honor you. And fund you.
Rebbetzin Palatnik is being honored for her role in bringing thousands of young mothers to Israel and exposing them to her particular brand of the Israeli experience. Her program features speakers from Hadassah, United Hatzalah, the IDF and others — organizations who can offer a stirring, uncomplicated portrait of Israel and Israelis. Activities include baking challah with the women of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Shabbat experience, and inspirational talks from women who have embraced Jewish observance.
You won’t find anywhere in the itinerary feminists who challenge gender inequality in Israel’s public domain. Israeli Arabs. Immigrants who have had to fight for their Judaism to be recognized by the government — in short, anyone who might complain. After all, whining isn’t "endearing."
Some overtly repressive governments operate by punishing citizens for challenging their policies. But there’s another tactic for the slightly more circumspect: to lavishly and publicly reward those who exalt and glorify it, making it clear that the rewards of falling in line will far outweigh the risks of speaking out.
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Rebbetzin Palatnik is a model citizen in that kind of flawed, and fragile, democracy. She is being rewarded for her obedience. She tells a saccharine story of Israel that the powers that be want to hear. She does not tell a story that makes things messy and complicated, particularly not for those in charge. There is no reason to engage those young American Jewish mothers in the project of building a better Israel, because Israel is already close enough to perfection.
As Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev noted in her citation, Palatnik was chosen to represent the Diaspora on Independence Day because she "symbolizes the eternal and victorious relationship between us and our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora."
But the Israel I know as a native Jerusalemite is complicated and messy. I find the "messy Israel" to be a flawed, but nonetheless wonderful, place for hashing out issues and having a real impact. The State of Israel is where Jewish and democratic values play out, and where a multiplicity of (sometimes conflicting) voices are engaged in figuring out what, precisely, those values are or should be. Israel affects us and reflects on us, holding up a mirror through which we can see both the beauty and the flaws.
Pretending that everything is perfect might be momentarily gratifying, but I personally can think of nothing more important, meaningful, and ultimately beautiful than to be engaged in a dialogue about Jewish values and the Jewish State, and doing real work to help achieve those values.
Diaspora Jewry deserves a different torchbearer. One who can confidently share the numerous conflicts that affect our lives, and trust in the audience they it has sufficient intelligence and understanding to fall in love with Israel anyway. My experience has been that love remains even after we’ve been exposed to reality, and to the truth. That is why my choice of torch-lighter would be one who devotes his or her platform to question, challenge the status quo, and to make things right.
One who demands that the State of Israel live up to its own values as expressed in our Declaration of Independence: "[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…"
I can't think of a more riveting dialogue between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora than one that revolves around helping Israel to become the democratic and pluralistic country that it has sometimes striven to be. Guiding this critical conversation requires intelligence, confidence, and sensitivity. It also demands courage, tenacity, and a willingness to fight for our deepest truths.
It may be a good deal less popular within pro-government circles, but that kind of torch lasts far beyond one Yom Ha’Atzmaut, for generations to come.
Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center