Another Misrepresentation of Israel

That an Iranian scholar, Abbas Milani of Stanford University, should get it wrong about Israel in a piece in the New York Times of April 11 is understandable. But that his co-author, Israel Weismel-Manor of Haifa University and currently a visiting professor at Stanford should so misrepresent Israel suggests malice, not just ignorance.

Their article, entitled Are Iran and Israel Trading Places? asserts that as Iran is becoming more liberal, Israel is becoming more Orthodox. As “evidence” they cite a couple of stupid statements by Israel’s minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon, and the pro-settler hard line of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the modern Orthodox Zionist Habayit Hayehudi.

To choose to mistake the modern Orthodoxy of Bennett, who plays an important part in the current Israeli government, with the extremist Orthodoxy of the haredim that are currently in opposition, suggests that the intention of the article may have been to scare readers and perhaps encourage them to distance themselves from Israel, for example by engaging in various forms of anti-Israel boycott.

Such a view may be consistent with the politics of an Iranian, however great a scholar. Alas, it may also be possible for an Israeli “post-Zionist” who, like a number of his intellectual compatriots, may have a need to denigrate Israel.

Yair Rosenberg – in an article in the online Tablet dated the same day, called, No, Israel Isn’t About to Turn Into a Theocracy – describes the New York Times piece as misleading and its authors, somewhat benignly in my view, as ignorant.

Rosenberg makes the obvious point that Bennett’s modern Orthodox Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists are at loggerheads and that Bennett, more than previous politicians, has tried to put the haredim in their place. Thus he has authorized salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis; he has taken steps to curb the power of the rabbinate in matters of conversion and marriage; he’s even seeking to limit subsidies to ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and compelling its “students” to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.

Not only does Bennett have secular members in his own party, but his closest ally in the government coalition seems to be Yair Lapid, the very secular leader of the largely secular Yesh Atid party.

 The above shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of Bennett’s politics. They’re pro-settlement and often quite reactionary, especially in his determination to complicate, perhaps derail, the peace process under one or another nationalist slogan, e.g., concerning the release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails.

Nor does this piece suggest that the ultra-Orthodox aren’t a terrible nuisance. They’re a heavy economic burden because of their lack of secular education and a demographic challenge because of their high birth rate. But they’re not hawks when it comes to foreign or social policy and can always be bought off to vote with the government. Their ayatollahs seek to impose Jewish law, not to dictate broad policies.

There’re many reasons to be worried about the future of Israel: not that it’ll turn ultra-Orthodox but ultra-nationalist. However, despite these and other fears, there’s so much in today’s Israel that’s positive, promising and exciting that even concerns for the almost-aborted peace process cannot and must not dampen our spirits

Jerusalem 12.4.14 (Motzae’i Shabbat Hagadol)                                        Dow Marmur


Towards Experimental Zionism

About ten years ago, I fell out of love with Israel. I don’t remember exactly how, when, or why this process started. When I was in elementary school I wasn’t sure who I’d side with in a war between the US and Israel and when I was in 8th grade, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, my social studies teacher once told my mom that she was afraid that I was going to enlist in the IDF. But by the time that I was a sophomore in high school, I had already started questioning Israel’s actions and eventually I came to a situation in which merely expressing some doubt as to the wisdom of Israeli policy led a good friend of mine to stop speaking to me for three days.
Since then, Israel has been a topic I’d rather not discuss. I’ve been cowardly: I’ve been fearful of both the punishing silence of lost friends and the vicious volume of loud strangers. I retreated into a silent, irritated indifference. Poisonous politics spoiled any possibility that I might have had of appreciating this place for its own sake.
Until now. When I began rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College, knowing that I would have to spend my first year in this country, living on this land, speaking its language, meeting its people, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to break down the concrete barriers in my mind and find a way rebuild my relationship with Israel out of Jerusalem stone. But fortunately, this has changed thanks to HUC’s exceptionally thoughtful approach to Israel studies—dedicating a weekly daylong seminar to soaking in the rich milk and golden honey of voices that constitute this society—and to a two-day colloquium on Israel engagement that I participated in with my fellow HUC students and students from other liberal seminaries. It has been a gradual process, punctuated by periods of powerful repulsion and profound appreciation. However, especially through my conversations with other Americans about their own ways of connecting with Israel, I believe that I have discovered the intellectual architecture with which I can reconstruct my collapsed connection with this place.
I call it experimental Zionism. Experimental Zionism understands Israel to be the grandest experiment in the history of the Jewish people, a messy exploration of what it looks like to create a society of Jews, by Jews, and for Jews. And the experimental Zionist’s first reaction to this society is fascination: it is something to study, to examine, to behold. But fascination alone—like unconditional, unquestioning love—is not enough to be Zionism. Zionism requires something more: vision.
Thus, experimental Zionists are not as concerned with Israel’s right to be as they are with what Israel could be. We quickly learn through our observations that this place is as imperfect as we are imperfect, but also that it is as perfectible as we are perfectible. Thus we concern ourselves with a more fundamental question: what do we want this Jewish society to look like, to sound like, to smell like, to taste like, to feel like, to act like? And just as important, how can we test these hypotheses in this world and see the resultant Jewish society that they create?
Admittedly, after all this time, I find myself surprised to be able to once again call myself a Zionist. But I can no longer say that I am indifferent to the state of affairs in this country; instead, though I still expect to spend my life in the diaspora, I also plan to support the ongoing, challenging, but essential evolution of Israel towards my hopes, a Jewish state that can truly be a light unto the nations. Among my hopes is that all of us who have found ourselves in a state of silent, irritated indifference when it comes to Israel can find our way to experimental Zionism: instead of talking about Israel’s impossible politics, we can imagine its possible wonders. We can start with the dream, and then will it to be.

Dan Ross is a first year student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. 

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

This article is being republished with permission from Tablet Magazine.


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.


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.