Israel as an Idea: Why Israel Isn't Living Up to the Expectations of Progressive Jews

The youth movement I went to as a child taught me that Israel is a country based on social justice and human dignity. Why doesn't that match the reality of today?

Reuters

I grew up with a strong attachment to Israel, despite that it was a country I hardly knew. While attending a Habonim Dror summer camp on the West Coast of Canada, I learned all about Labor Zionism, some Israeli history, and of course, the values of the kibbutz. The values I learned at camp were of social justice and human dignity. These ideals shaped my idea of Israel.

Yet the idea of Israel that I grew up with was just that, an idea. Ideas, however, rarely correspond to lived experience. Accordingly, my expectations of what I hoped Israel to be were very much based in the experience of not having lived there.

For many progressively minded Jews, Israel is not living up to the moral standards we hold it to in our minds. The standard we set may be unreasonable, but it is one rooted in the legitimate belief that as a historically persecuted people, we should be especially sensitive to the misuses of political power, and to systematic violations of people’s civil and human rights.

Too often, however, progressive Diaspora criticism is dismissed as being motivated by unrealistic ideals that do not correspond to the realities of an existential conflict.

To dismiss such criticism is a mistake. It is to assume that realism and idealism are opposite frameworks for shaping political worldviews, and ultimately, for shaping policy. In the field of international relations, this key dichotomy is introduced in E.H. Carr’s landmark book “The Twenty-Years' Crisis.” Carr suggests that there are two approaches: realist and idealist. Realists respond to the world as it is, whereas idealists act according to how the world ought to be.

Carr sets up a false dichotomy. The representation of idealists as irresponsible is plausible only if we accept the absurd premise that values cannot or should not guide political decision-making. While the realist’s emphasis on mistrust and conflict does reflect much in politics, it does not characterise all of politics. To act as a realist and focus exclusively on fear, danger and mistrust is to contribute to making a world where these attributes take precedent. It is, in short, to justify a kind of sociopathy were policy decisions are defined by suspicion, insecurity, and short-term self-interest that in any other context would not be tolerated.

Carr’s dichotomy serves primarily as a rhetorical device designed to make idealists appear foolish and realists appear, well, realistic. However, the world is both what we experience and what we make it. Consequently, the question we should be asking is not what is realistic or how Israel does not (or cannot) live up to a set of ideals, but instead: What ideals do we want Israel to strive toward?

This is not about how others treat us or what others expect of the Jewish people, but what we do as Jews and how, as Jews, we evaluate our own political practices.

However, it is no longer clear what Israel is supposed to stand for. From Israel, we hear how when it comes to security there is no choice but to dismiss ostensibly utopian ideals of social justice and human dignity. What idea of the future justifies such a position, and is that future worth fighting for? Progressive voices in the Diaspora can afford to speak in terms of high ideals. We do not have to engage in the hard work of implementing the policies necessary for Israel to end the occupation and function as a fully democratic state, with respect for the human and minority rights we hold strongly as ideals.

Yet, so long as Diaspora Jews view Israel as an idea that is not shared by those who live there, their relationship with the Jewish state will not be based on conversation and reciprocal engagement, but on soliloquy. Soliloquies are powerful, but only if there is an audience, and in this case there may not be one.

Whether they come from the political left, with utopian ideals that do not appreciate the severity of the dangers facing Israel, or from the right, half-blinded by propaganda or the perception that the security threat is unassailable, Diaspora Jews relate to Israel as an idea that they can romantically engage with while avoiding the experiences of life in Israel.

To bridge the Diaspora ideas of Israel with Israeli citizens' perceptions and experiences, Diaspora Jews will need to let go of whatever ideas of Israel we project onto the country and its people, and explore with Israelis where their country is going. At the same time, if Israel hopes to remain a country that corresponds to the Jewish values of social justice and human dignity, Israelis – both lay citizens and decision makers – will need to start listening more seriously to progressive Diaspora voices.

This is not about who is realistic, who is idealistic, or who is right. It is about shaping today’s actions towards a desirable future.

Ilan Zvi Baron is a lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University where he is also co-director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics, and author of the recently published book, “Obligation in Exile: the Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique.”