Loving Israel to Death

Unless the Jewish community makes room for loving disagreement with Israel, we will all pay a heavy price.

Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf
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Participants at a J Street conference in 2012.
Participants at a J Street conference in 2012.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf

Just last week, Jews worldwide celebrated Israel’s 66th Independence Day - a time for wholehearted love of the world’s only Jewish state.

Loving Israel includes rejoicing in a vibrant and vital Jewish society and taking pride in her long list of extraordinary achievements, like being the Middle East’s only democracy and its Silicon Valley. It includes feeling sick about constant rocket fire, threats of terrorist attacks, and Jewish teens being conscripted. It involves defending Israel’s right to exist against villainous voices calling for her destruction.

Within major American Jewish organizations and many mainstream synagogues, the above is the only permissible definition of love; criticism of Israel is anathema. Israel faces enough attacks from without, these institutions and their leaders argue. The Jewish community’s response should be to batten down the hatches and defend Israel at all costs, not join the chorus against her.

The most recent casualty of this mentality is J Street, the pro-Israel lobby urging American politicians to move Israel toward a two-state solution, which was recently denied membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

This approach, I think, is dangerous and destructive.

First, it is dangerous for Israel. There are those of us in the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities who believe that a just peace with the Palestinians through a two-state solution is essential to Israel’s long-term security, stability, and status as a moral exemplar. If loving Israel means caring for her welfare, then supporting the peace process is an essential part of loving Israel.

And if advocating for a Palestinian state is an aspect of loving Israel, then so too is offering rebuke when Israel takes steps that are counterproductive to that end. To be sure, Palestinian leaders do much on their own to undermine the prospect of their own sovereignty and a lasting peace. But certainly part of the blame for the conflict’s perpetuation is our own. It is no less an expression of love to hold Israel accountable for its missteps than it is to try to prevent a loved one from mindlessly walking into traffic. Affection for Israel’s positive contributions has its place, but so too does criticism of its failures.

For this reason, I and many others see loving Israel as involving some seemingly contradictory things: Protesting new settlement construction in the West Bank, for instance. For another, feeling deeply pained when a Palestinian cannot visit a loved one in the hospital without a special permit from the Israeli government; when one of our soldiers tears a Palestinian father from his family by imprisoning him indefinitely without any charges; when a Palestinian child becomes “collateral damage” during an Israeli airstrike, or when Jews vandalize Arab neighborhoods with hateful graffiti. It can involve agonizing over what Peter Beinart calls “The Crisis of Zionism,” the reality that if Israel does not facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state, she will ultimately have to choose between being a democratic state or a Jewish one. Thus, there are those of us who criticize Israel as an expression of love, a way of trying to prevent her from wandering into traffic.

But, just as important, the establishment’s mentality is destructive to the future of American Judaism. According to last year’s Pew study, only 38 percent of American Jews think the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to secure peace with the Palestinians. Nearly half say building Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts Israel’s security. This means that while American Jews are largely optimistic about, advocate for, and see the necessity of a two-state solution, most believe the current Israeli government has undermined those efforts.

Whether we are right is both debatable and, ultimately, beside the point. By excluding those of us who periodically challenge Israel, Jewish institutions will increasingly find that they are speaking to and representing less and less American Jews. The price of unquestioning loyalty is too high for many American Jews. Unless we value, respect, and hold space for those with whom we disagree, and who sometimes lovingly disagree with Israel, we will all ultimately be the ones who pay the price.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.

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