The Idea of Israel vs. The State of Israel

The Arena

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The Idea of Israel vs. The State of Israel: Many American Jews see the idea of Israel as representing the best of themselves — a beacon of democracy and Jewish values whose image they work hard to promote. Last Thursday’s decision to ban two members of Congress from visiting undoubtedly hurt that image. Israel is — of course — not just an idea. It’s a government and a state that must often prioritize practical concerns over simply maintaining its image abroad. 

Question for thought leaders: Should American Jews learn to view Israel as more of a state and less of a projected lofty ideal?

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi tells JI: “One of the disconnects between Israelis and American Jews is that, for us, Israel is home and for American Jews it’s an idea. Many Israelis do want to see Israel aspire to higher ideals, but in the end a nation is a cross-section of humanity, with national self-interest as their most basic commonality… it’s not true that Israel is only a place for Israelis. Israel still is an idea too for many of us here. And we need Diaspora Jews to remind us not to let the idea get entirely lost in the day-to-day life of the place. But Diaspora Jews also need to understand that we have the right to screw up and make mistakes, including moral mistakes, and that our right to be, along with the integrity of Judaism, isn’t being weighed anew with each screw-up.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of congregation IKAR in Los Angeles: “Israel is a sovereign state, home to millions of real people, part of a global economy, ruled by a governing legislative body and High Court, with a strong military and police force. It’s not a ride at an amusement park… it’s patronizing and self-defeating to treat Israel like it exists outside of space and time — there to receive our projections of Jewish empowerment, hold our collective history, and teach our teens self-love… when the real policies of real state actors make it impossible to reconcile our dreams for Jerusalem with its realities, it serves no one to hide behind the lofty ideal. Instead, we have to be honest about the reality and work toward its transformation.”

Abe Foxman: “Israel first and foremost is a sovereign independent state, a Jewish democratic state whose prime responsibility is the safety and wellbeing of all its citizens. And while it proclaims to be the state of the Jewish people — its prime responsibility are its citizens! Therefore from time to time it may take decisions it views to be in the best interests of the state which are not well received by Diaspora Jews! That is fine. And it also has the sovereign right to make mistakes and displease the Jewish people in the Diaspora. At the end of the day it is responsible — it benefits or suffers from its decisions. The consequences good or bad are the state’s and its citizens.

“Having said that, because it is the Jewish State and the state of the Jewish people and I as some Jews in the Diaspora support it and its well-being unconditionally for selfish, altruistic, historic and religious and many reasons, I feel I have right to hope — wish — that it be better, smarter, more just and moral. In many respects it is, but not always. I want more respect, more tolerance, more empathy, more love — for the disabled, the poor, the minorities, the less fortunate, the immigrants, the asylum-seekers, the Holocaust survivors. I want to see less indifference, less hate, less apathy, less corruption, and more better education, better health etc. and if it doesn’t happen I will not love Israel less or support her less. There is nothing wrong in wanting the entity you love and admire to be wise, just and excel in values and in fact ‘be a light unto the nations.’”

Amanda Berman, founder and executive director of the Zioness Movement: “This is a false choice. The question posed last week was not whether Israel is a state or an idea, but whether the actions of the state were actually taken in the best interest of Israel and Klal Yisrael… We’re facing a test and must fight both for our American home and our Jewish homeland, especially as the challenges of both become more precariously intertwined.”

Daniel Gordis, rabbi, author and senior vice president at Shalem College: “The bottom line is, yeah, it’s a great idea. But the minute you fall in love with the idea and not the reality of it, then you are always going to fall short. Before you have a child, you imagine walks in the park at sunset with the stroller. Then the kid turns 16. And you gotta love that kid through the tough times and the bad times. That’s just what love is. If people want to love the idea of Jewish independence, they have to love not just the idea. They don’t have to agree with it all the time… No real relationship, whether it’s with a person or with a job or with a country can be about just the platonic form of it. It’s gotta be with the reality of it, and we’ve got to learn to love each other on both sides with all our warts, and all of our mistakes, because we’re both extraordinary accomplishments, and we’re both riven by all sorts of very serious dangers to our own existence.” 

Jeffrey Herbst, president of American Jewish University: “One of the mistakes that can be made about Israel is thinking that it cannot be understood like other countries.  In fact, all nations—including such notable examples as China, France, and South Africa–have idealized versions of themselves.   Because nations are composed of human beings, have imperfect political and economic systems, and live under structural and historical constraints not of their choosing, there is always a gap between what citizens might wish for and what they experience on a day-to-day basis.

“Most leaders and citizens toggle between the ideal and reality.  Successful leaders and movements use the ideal to motivate their countries to do better. The real question is if too large a gap opens up between the aspiration and the reality.   That can cause a legitimacy crisis of the type that eventually helped destroy the Soviet Union.

“American Jews should therefore not have a problem understanding that Israel is both a state and a projected lofty ideal.  The real question is if they can realize when the ideal is most relevant and when the reality must be accommodated. And American Jews should approach the question with a modesty  that is sometimes absent because it is the Israelis themselves who will benefit or suffer depending on the alignment of their dreams and accomplishments. Fortunately, Israelis ask, sometimes obsessively, if they are living up to their ideal.  That in and of itself is an important reason to celebrate Israel.”

Michael Salberg, former associate national director and director of international affairs at the ADL (2006 to 2015) and a senior executive at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (2016 to 2018): “Looking at the structural differences between Israel, a sovereign nation with its Jewish majority, and the United States where Jews as a small minority have succeeded and thrived like no other Diaspora community in history is a good starting point.  Now we should examine how that enormous difference impacts and distinguishes the lived experiences of Israelis and American Jews in significant aspects of everyday life – culturally, socially, politically, economically and geopolitically. 

“We must begin to look at and define and appreciate the differences – not just try to reconcile them through the lens of what we share in common.  It is not surprising that the situation has deteriorated, and we are having difficulty figuring out exactly what we should be doing to bridge the widening gap.  

“Creating opportunities for person-to-person connections based on, but not confined to shared interests, in an environment promoting opportunities to learn together about each other’s lives has the potential to engender deeper mutual appreciation and understanding.  The goal should be to generate open, honest and respectful discussions within and between both communities, commit communal resources to expanding the few existing programs already successfully doing this while nurturing innovative new approaches that will allow us to scale up the effort.  

“Israelis and American Jews have been meeting through school twinning and joint study programs or in small groups of Israelis visiting the U.S. and American Jews visiting Israel.  

“These projects foster engagement and nurture relationships in pursuit of shared outcomes without a predominant ideological, political or specific denominational perspective.

“It is happening today on much too small a scale.”

Ron Klein, chair of the board of Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA): “As American Jews, we are proud of the many important ways — including critical innovations in high-tech, medicine, defense technology, and agriculture — that the Jewish State has surpassed the vision of early Zionists and its founders. Shared values, progress, and accomplishments remain the basis for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and Israeli-diaspora relationship. As with our own country, we can criticize the government and its policies while never wavering in our support for the state of Israel. We are proud that Israel has set high standards for itself, rooted in Jewish values. When it does not fully realize these ideals, we will continue to speak out for the sake of our values and tshuvah, out of our respect and love for Israel.”

Professor Jonathan Sarna: “Since colonial days, the Israel of American Jews has been what I call ‘a projection of America as it ought to be.’  If American Jews prayed little, they imagined that Jews in the land of Israel prayed and studied all day long.  If American Jews felt uncomfortably urban they imagined that in Israel Jews would be farmers on the land. Louis Brandeis projected onto the Land of Israel all of the Progressive ideas (about land, education and healthcare, for example) that never won Congressional approval in the US. During the Six Day War, when America was floundering in Vietnam, Israel’s amazing victory again projected the idea that it was ‘America as it ought to be.’ Today, in the eyes of three-quarters of American Jews, America ought not to be what Donald Trump is trying to make it. They think it ought to be the anti-Trump. Naturally, they look to Israel to embody this sense of what America ‘ought to be.’ 

“What American Jews often fail to understand is that Israel can no longer be a projection of their ideals. As a small country surrounded by dangerous enemies, it has no choice but to ingratiate itself with a super-power — America — for its protection. Indeed, the number one responsibility of an Israeli Prime Minister is to be on good terms with the President of the United States. These days, that means kowtowing to Donald Trump. I personally have no doubt that the attempted visit of Reps. Tlaib and Omar might have been handled more cleverly (maybe she could have been given an all Druze and Ethiopian group of security guards?)  But at the end of the day, American Jews want ‘a projection of America as it ought to be’ and the Prime Minister of Israel has to make the best of ‘America as it actually is.’ When Donald Trump urged Israel to deny entry to the Democratic Congresswomen, he had no choice but to comply.”

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