It’s Time To Talk About Israel

To my fellow Jewish millennials, it’s time we talk about Israel. Not as the Birthright State or as Iran’s biggest enemy or the place with that city with the great beaches, but rather as a State we can call our own. I’m ready to start the conversation and I hope you’ll join me, because it’s wrong that so many of us think the State of Israel has no relevance in our day-to-day lives.

To suggest that there is no Jewish need for the State of Israel in 2014/5774 is akin to saying that the synagogue is irrelevant in Jewish life. For many, neither the synagogue nor Israel is a meaningful outlet for expressing or participating in their personal Judaism, but that makes neither irrelevant. Such a worldview is a personal approach to Judaism that is a consequence of the Jewish community’s past inability to think creatively about engagement. In no way should a disinterest in Israel or a synagogue automatically diminish the value of Judaism to the individual, but it does change the concept of where one goes to express their Judaism, and how they do it once there.
Both Israel and the synagogue, as collectives of individuals, have the unique and unfettered ability to create a Jewish collage that not only lifts up each of the individuals, but also those who surround them – their community. They both allow us to “do Judaism” on a macro level. The Jewish commitment to tikkun olam, as only one example, can be magnified tremendously when we act as communities, not as individuals. Many would correctly argue that you can participate in tikkun olam outside of a Jewish community, but it can only be the actions of our community and its leadership that show we care and we “do” because we are Jewish. Yes, an individual can do good regardless of their status within the Jewish community, but is it not their Jewish upbringing and Jewish values that – even in the smallest part – guide them to do good? It must be, for the vast majority of Jews do acts of righteousness because it is the Jewish thing to do, not because it is “the thing” to do. Israel, as our State, is one of the few places where a person can go in order to act Jewishly and with intent among a community of other Jews. This magnifies and multiplies the products of our action, and we must use this power as an opportunity to do right.

Israel, as a State, also presents us with the opportunity to share the international stage with nations of other faiths and values. At first glance this might appear meaningless, but nations are uniquely positioned to lead their people to act in accordance with a certain set of values. For one, Israel’s standing peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan demonstrate that the political divides in the Middle East are not founded on religious differences between Jews and Muslims, despite what extremists on either side might preach. These treaties provide us with inspiration to pursue common ground in our own communities, in order that we might find peace globally. Along the same lines, when the Jewish State chooses to intervene in any situation in the global arena, it does so in the name of Judaism. This, too, is a tremendous right and responsibility, and one that, when taken with good intention, serves to lift up the Jewish people as a righteous group. In short, there is both an opportunity and a responsibility for the State to lead the Jewish people. Simultaneously, however, it falls on the Jewish people to ensure that those who represent us and act on our behalf in the name of the State are acting with the best intent, and that their actions demonstrate the Jewish values which we hold most dear.

If only one thing is agreed upon, it must be that too often, the politics of Israel’s relations, both domestic and foreign, cloud our understanding of the critical role the State plays in our peoples’ ability to not only survive, but thrive. When we are able to appreciate the State for what in can offer – as opposed to what it does – and when we advocate and insist that the State must live up to the highest of Jewish standards, we have limitless potential to strengthen both our communities and ourselves as Jews.

Isaac Nuell currently serves as the Religious Action Center’s Manager of Congregational Social Action.

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The Heart of the Biennial

I was at my first URJ Biennial, this one held in San Diego from December 11th to 15th, 2013.

Let me present my own personal observations which I would define as “a most remarkable sense of togetherness.” The feeling of wandering around a convention center with some 5,000 other Reform/Progressive, mostly from the United States but with significant contingents from other parts of the world was, to put it mildly, absolutely exhilarating.

During the five days there was hardly a moment when someone didn’t come up to me to introduce her or himself to chat about a common topic. While the human interaction component was certainly welcome, the content of our discussions was particularly significant

The visit to Israel is recalled with warmth and remembered as being highly significant. In many cases, people who I had met in the United States felt the same. If I had only met a handful of friends and colleagues engaging me in issues related to Israel, I would explain it as a localized phenomenon. However, much to my surprise, our interaction came out of the genuine and profound desire to indicate that regardless of where we live “we are family.”

Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most thoughtful journalists, in an article entitled To my brothers and sisters wrote “People 60 and up cannot live without Israel. Those who are between 40 and 60 generally still have some kind of affinity with Israel. But young Americans in their teens and 20s are in a different world.”

Most of the people I encountered in San Diego were probably 40 and above. However, this is not the time to give up on the younger generation for each generation expresses its desire to be different from the one before it. The marvel of the human spirit is that it questions and re-questions contemporary assumptions. The teens and 20s do undoubtedly have certain problems with Israel, but so do I. Ari Shavit emphasizes that “a common past and a common destiny and a future that must be defined together” is our challenge. I couldn’t agree more!

During the exhilarating five days , my sense that this complex and confusing idea of “Jewish Peoplehood,” the common understandings of Jews throughout the world and the determination to work together, remains central for many of us. Some thousands of years ago a small and vulnerable people set out on a perilous journey to the Promised Land. Moses could only see it from afar whereas we, the beneficiaries of so many who went before us, can visit Israel or decide to live there. How lucky we are!

Paul Liptz is the Director of Education at the Anita Saltz International Education Center of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He was on the Tel Aviv University faculty for 35 years and also lectured at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He made aliyah one day before the Six Day War.

Hillel Should Welcome Wider Debate on Israel—to Keep Moderate Young Jews Involved

This article is being republished with permission from Tablet Magazine.

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Last week, Swarthmore Hillel declared itself to be the first “Open Hillel”—that is, the first Hillel to reject the guidelines established by Hillel International concerning discussions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These guidelines, students at Swarthmore asserted in a resolution passed Dec. 8, present a “monolithic face pertaining to Zionism” and stifle healthy debate around Israel.

On college campuses across North America, Hillel is the focal point of student Jewish life. According to its website, it is devoted to “enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Among its many responsibilities—providing kosher facilities, facilitating religious observance, offering opportunities for Jewish learning, volunteering, and inter-faith dialogue—Hillel is officially committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The current Hillel guidelines with regard to Israel state that Hillel will not partner with organizations or host programs that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

In response to Swarthmore Hillel’s declaration, Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, published an open letter to the chapter leadership: “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines.” The letter appeared to threaten Swarthmore Hillel with expulsion if its leaders chose to break those rules.

So the extreme poles of the debate have been set. At one end, Swarthmore Hillel wants to abandon any boundaries when it comes to debate on Israel, while at the other, the leadership of Hillel’s central body refuses to reconsider the existing parameters it sets for member chapters. But neither position is particularly constructive given the situation on many campuses today.

The “Open Hillel” movement actually began last year at Harvard, where I am a student. At issue were attempts by certain groups under the Hillel umbrella to co-sponsor events with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, a campus organization that actively advocates for boycotts against Israel. In response, students at Harvard Hillel organized a series of constructive and substantive meetings in order to develop new parameters of partnership that reflect the diversity of viewpoints held by students but are also within the limits of Hillel International’s guidelines.

And yet, almost a year later, these conversations have produced no consensus. This is partly because some students refuse to compromise their zero-sum position rejecting all guidelines whatsoever. But it is also due to Hillel International’s own guidelines, which effectively prevent the campus Jewish community from engaging in meaningful and vital dialogue with pro-Palestinian students and organizations on campus.

Hillel, like every organization, has the right to set guidelines on what kinds of discourse it wants to sponsor and promote. Not all debate about Israel needs to be allowed within Hillel’s walls; Hillel should not condone speech that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as both a Jewish and democratic state in theory or that actively seeks to undermine that right in practice. Certainly, many campus Hillels have taken important steps to incorporate campus J Street groups and other progressive Jewish voices in the name of creating a more nuanced and pluralistic campus discourse—a far cry from promoting a monolithic view of Zionism and Israeli politics.

But the Jewish community in general and Hillel International in particular need to recognize that the younger generation of Jews demands a new paradigm for engaging with Israel that reflects both their deep commitment to the Jewish state and their awareness—thanks both to the far greater accessibility to online news and, yes, to advocacy campaigns by left-leaning groups—of the very real problems of the ongoing occupation and settlement growth. These are policies that many young Jews see as both morally indefensible and inimical to Israel’s future.

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As a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, I have often been disappointed by the one-dimensional discourse about Israel among my American peers—on both the right and the left. Many students on the right either ignore the occupation altogether or insist that the Palestinians are entirely to blame for their own plight. Meanwhile, students on the left frequently invert causation by arguing that the occupation is the cause of Arab aggression rather than the consequence of it; they place the onus for changing the status quo on Israel’s shoulders alone and ignore systemic obstacles to peace within Palestinian society. In short, both sides distort the reality in Israel today, something that is extremely frustrating for anybody who has lived and experienced the conflict firsthand.

The result, frequently, is a total absence of substantive discourse. Each side has its entrenched position, presented only in absolutes. If the Jewish community and Hillel do not promote a more sophisticated conversation about Israel they risk alienating a growing number of young Jews who want to be engaged but who are frustrated or simply turned off by the tenor of the existing debate. I’m not talking about unaffiliated Jews, whose disengagement from Israel is merely symptomatic of their distancing from Judaism or Jewishness more broadly. I mean those liberal-minded Jews for whom Israel is a complicating factor for their Jewish identity: children of the Oslo era who view as axiomatic the idea that a two-state solution will ensure Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state and who therefore find it impossible to ignore Israeli policies that threaten the viability of any future partition by further entrenching the occupation.

Jewish institutions like Hillel should be actively engaging with students trying to make sense of their commitment to Zionism rather than pushing them away. If it does not, Hillel will become irrelevant to the lives of a growing number of politically and socially progressive Jews. Right now, these students are asking the Jewish establishment to welcome them and make space for their critical engagement with the thorny realities of contemporary Israel—an expression of their dedication to the Jewish state. True, these young Jews might be a minority within the wider American Jewish community as a whole, but they are also its future. From their ranks will come the brightest, most engaged and thoughtful Jewish leaders, rabbis, educators, academics, and lay leaders. It is upon their continued involvement that the future of both Judaism in North America and Israel are contingent.

The Jewish community must recognize that being critical of the occupation is not tantamount to being anti-Israel. Much criticism of Israel comes from a deep commitment to Israel’s future, and there is often a double standard in the Jewish community when it comes to criticizing Israeli policies: To criticize from the right is acceptable, but from the left is seen as stabbing Israel in the back. So, guidelines like Hillel’s are frequently applied unilaterally to speakers from the left, while right-wing speakers who adamantly oppose a two-state solution – a position that implies little concern for Israel’s future as a democratic state – are welcomed.

At the same time, progressive Jews should do more to mitigate the legitimate concerns of the organized Jewish community and stand up to those who undermine the moral and political foundations of the Jewish state. The rejectionist ethos of much anti-Israel activism is a threat not only to Israel, but ultimately to the viability of peace in the region.

This demands a move toward moral complexity on the part of both Jewish institutions and progressive Jewish groups. It means, for example, differentiating between criticism of the state of Israel as such and criticism of the policies of this or that government. It also means judging student efforts to engage with Israel by the objectives to which they aspire.

Hillel should seek to foster in students a deep love for and commitment to the Jewish national project while simultaneously giving them the tools to engage critically with the multifaceted reality of life in Israel. For the state will endure—and remain relevant not just to Israelis but to Jews around the world—only if it can be defended not just militarily but also morally. Indeed, there is no inherent contradiction between the responsibility to defend Israel and the imperative to perfect it. The two are mutually reinforcing: Defending the state is a necessary condition for perfecting it, just as a more perfect Israel will be easier to defend.

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Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.