Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“What Does It Mean to Be Pro Israel Today”

The current issue of Moment Magazine features a symposium on the subject, “What does it mean to be pro Israel today?”  To its credit, the Jewish magazine asked for responses from a wide range of people, including critics of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish,  who are not Zionist.  But there was no traditional religious respondent, either Muslim or Jewish, and as anybody knows, traditional religion is in the driver’s seat in the Middle East today. 

[Update: A representative of Moment pointed me to a different page where various rabbis’ opinions were solicited. Look here. Needless to say, all or almost all the rabbis were in the Zionist consensus.]

So here is my response to the Moment symposium, although I am hardly your typical modern orthodox Jew, if there is such a creature.

When people ask me whether I am pro-Israel, I unhesitatingly and unabashedly say yes. I am for Israel, which is the classical name for the Jewish people, I believe in and practice, to the best of my limited capacities, the love of the Jewish people, ahavat Yisrael. But what does that phrase mean? Hannah Arendt pleaded guilty to  Gershom Scholem’s charge that she lacked ahavat Yisrael, stating that she loves people, not “the people”, not an abstraction. But even if “Israel” is not taken to represent an abstract collective but rather each and every individual Jew, it is arguably impossible, not to mention undesirable, to love people you have never met, or worse, whose ideology or character revolts you, simply because you are a member of their tribe. (Do you love everybody in your family?)

And yet, for me, ahavat Yisrael means to accord members of the Jewish people a special place in my heart, because I view them as extended family. And that is why as a member of the family I feel worse  when some of family act atrociously.

(On another occasion I will write against the wrong sort of ahavat Yisrael, the sort exemplified by Meir Kahane’s remark, “I don’t hate Arabs; I just love Jews.” That sort of ahavat Yisrael is rampant in the State of Israel, and produces the same sort of inequity that racism produces, even though it professes, with some justification, that it is not racist in motivation.)

Of course, the Moment symposium question understood “Israel” as referring to the “State of Israel,” which itself means, the “State of the Jewish People.”  And so what they were asking is what does it mean to support the state of Israel today? To me, this is an academic question; I am not interested in supporting states or the well-being of states per se; my concern is for the well-being of the people of those states. As a liberal nationalist, I believe that the well-being of people requires some sort of political framework, and that framework is generally a state. But states are only important in what they can furnish their peoples. And so we are back to the level of people and not states.

Many of the symposiasts assume that the well-being of the Jewish people requires the existence of not just of a state, not just even of a Jewish state but of the State of Israel. I feel that this too strong. I require a framework that will provide the maximum opportunity for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, and, in an extended sense, their extended families in their respective diasporas, to flourish. I have come to the conclusion that the State of Israel, as it is currently constituted, is not that framework, although there are many elements of it that are worth preserving. No state is perfect, but some states are too imperfect, and Israel is one of them. Maybe I am oversensitive on this point, but I am a citizen of the state of Israel, and hence a member of the Israeli family.

Since I focus on people and not states, the response that resonated with me most was George Bisharat’s:

Being pro-Israel means supporting peace and stability for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and upholding principles that will ensure that peace and stability over the long term. That means supporting the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and equal rights in Israel-Palestine.

I started out by saying that I believe in and practice ahavat Yisrael  because I view Jews as extended family. When I read such sentiments from Prof. Bisharat, I also view him as extended family, but in a different sense. The Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” and the commentator Rashi writes ,”’Your brother’ in mitzvot/ commandments.” Prof. Bisharat and I are equally commanded in pursuing peace and justice; that is why I consider him by brother, or if you like, a fellow traveler. The same God who commanded me to love my fellow Jews commanded me to pursue peace and justice for all peoples. No state  built on unjust foundations is worth preserving, but many states are worth transforming into more just polities, even at the expense of transforming their identities. Israel is one of these.


Richard Witty said...

I think that Israel is reformable (the state as a skeletal extension of the people).

Thanks for your comments.

pabelmont said...

Lovely essay.

One quirk about Israel the state is to reflect on Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people" statement. Israel persists in calling itself the state OF the Jewish people (and doubtless FOR the Jewish people), dismissing all the others with a claim to live happily in the homeland.

Here's a story: as a secular Jew, I was not invited to a Seder until age 20 or so. I felt quite out of place, a guest in another's home, and was glad to be welcomed -- though still a stranger without claims to be present.

I wish that the Jews who chose to live in Palestine had felt (and been treated) that way by their hosts, the Palestinians. It might, possibly, have happened so, once upon a time. No longer. Now, those Jews (who should have behaved politely as guests) have thrown their hosts out of the house.

And having thrown, they ask, "What does it mean to be Pro Israel today"?

From the POV of general humanity, and certainly from a Palestinian POV, it must mean something about righting that wrong. The robbers, still in the house, seem to feel it means something else.

Devir said...

I totaly agree with the contents of your post. And those of Richard Witty and Pabelmont.
Modern brain studies talk about a new category
( different from mere IQ ): emotional intelligenge. Your posts are rationally articulate ( as a schollar should be )but, fortunately, not deprived from the warmth of emotion, thank G-D...