Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
When little dreams come true
Keep Dreaming: We tend to beat ourselves up in this country far too often, for good reason. But far too infrequently do we stop to marvel at the wonder of all that we have achieved.

Yesterday I reached out from my bedroom balcony and plucked a sweet, ripe fig from a tree growing two stories below. Shehecheyanu. It was the first time I was able to do that.

The tiny sapling I had planted several years ago had finally grown tall enough. A little dream come true.

Hailing from New York and having never seen one growing up, I’ve been enamored of Israel’s fig trees since my first trip here in 1970. I suppose it has something to do with biblical associations and the prophetic promise of days to come when we will have little else to do but to recline in their shade, enjoying the blessings of peace and prosperity. So a fig tree, in a little garden in the Land of Israel over which I would have sovereignty, has long represented for me the realization of the Zionist dream. On a small scale, of course.

Still, having fulfilled that aspiration is not something I take for granted, certainly not after 40 years of longing. Nor should all the wonders characterizing this country be anything that any of us takes for granted, certainly not after two millennia of yearning.

I’m not one to whitewash Israel’s flaws, but neither do I allow myself to ignore all that we have achieved.

I am profoundly distressed by the impossibilities faced by young couples desperate to find affordable housing, but thoroughly enjoy strolling through the development projects that have transformed old ports and dilapidated train stations into bustling hubs of culture, shopping and gluttony.

I am deeply disturbed by the hardships endured by Palestinian laborers who have to cross checkpoints every day on their way into Israel proper to eke out a meager living. Yet I celebrate the fact that on a recent evening at the Mamilla Mall, I sat in a café overlooking Jerusalem’s ancient walls with traditionally garbed Arab women sitting at tables scattered about, smiling and at ease, talking on their cell phones and attending to their infant children. I am terribly worried about the poor results scored by our children on standardized, international examinations in English and mathematics, but am buoyed by the ever-growing number of Israeli Nobel Prize laureates we can boast about.

I am repulsed by the story that hit the press a couple of weeks back about the Arab schoolchildren from Jaffa who were denied access to an Israeli amusement park for no other reason than that they were not Jewish. But I find comfort that while wandering the narrow streets of the capital’s Old City last week, there to enjoy the Jerusalem of Light festivities, I was able to ask directions from Israeli Arab policemen and engage in conversation with Arab restaurateurs in premises stylishly modeled and immaculately maintained.

IT PAINS me enormously that an unforgivably high percentage of our citizenry subsists below the poverty line, unable to purchase even basic foodstuffs, but I take great pleasure in navigating the roads of Israel with Waze, knowing that it was just sold to Google for $1.1 billion, the latest in a long string of multimillion-dollar “exits” fueling our economy.

I am troubled by ongoing expressions of prejudice against our brethren from Ethiopia, but feel great pride in being represented internationally by one of them who has been crowned Miss Israel.

I am anguished and angered by the continuing repression of religious freedom in this country, exemplified of late by attempts to intimidate the Women of the Wall, but was enchanted on a recent balmy evening by the very contemporary music of ostensibly ultra-Orthodox musicians, who were entertaining obviously secular passersby along one of Jerusalem’s busiest commercial passageways.

I am discouraged by the large number of Israelis who continue to leave the country in search of opportunity elsewhere, but delight in playing with my grandchildren on a Shabbat afternoon in a playground full of little Sabras who will grow up never knowing what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.

I am sickened by the fanaticism and intolerance of those among us who destroy property, deface mosques and terrorize Muslim inhabitants of this land as the “price tag” to be paid for Arab rejection of our right to be here, but am heartened by the results of poll after poll showing a majority of our people are prepared to accept a twostate solution in the pursuit of peace, despite all we have suffered at the hands of our implacable enemies.

The list goes on. Every concern is a challenge to be taken seriously. Every achievement a triumph. Another little dream come true – not only mine, ours.

The collective fulfillment of a dream not so little at all.

We tend to beat ourselves up in this country – far too often for good reason.

But far too infrequently do we stop to appreciate the miracle of our return and the marvels of the Zionist enterprise, and to share these things with those unfamiliar with them. We have a penchant for bemoaning the insufficiencies of Israel’s advocacy efforts. And not without good reason. But rather than expending energy on shifting the blame to others, we might take upon ourselves the responsibility of sharing with others our little dreams come true.

Our stories are the story of Israel.

Each of us has a sapling to nurture, a sweet, ripe fig to pluck. A reminder to ourselves of why we are here. And a declaration to others of our right to remain, determined to make of this country all it was meant to be. ■

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.


Keep Dreaming: It’s Greek to me…
…and of concern to us all

From time to time I’m granted a glimpse of the future. It’s one of the perks of my job. Sometimes it’s rosy. Sometimes it’s gray. More often than not the hues intermingle; a sunset on an overcast horizon, or perhaps a sunrise on a cloudy day.

Most recently I got a preview of things to come in ancient Greece. I was there for a seminar of Zionist youth movement counselors hailing from several countries in Europe – members of the next generation to whom tomorrow has been entrusted. We were in Athens as an expression of solidarity with this small Jewish community that is going through particularly rough times due to the economic hardships facing the country as a whole. Flashes of what I got to see: The Beth Shalom synagogue. On March 24, 1944, the Jews of Athens were summoned here by their Nazi occupiers. Once inside, the doors shut behind them. Those who hadn’t come of their own volition were arrested in their homes and shops, eventually to be herded onto trains headed for Auschwitz, there to perish along with a full 87 percent of the 78,000- strong Greek Jewish community.

On the Shabbat of my visit, I attended services in that very same synagogue and looked on as the 50 seminar participants danced on the street that 70 years ago had been overrun by German soldiers. It was not a moment to be taken for granted, and the young counselors hardly needed me to point that out. Standing around a memorial nestled in an adjacent park, they were asked to share a story of a Holocaust survivor they knew. I shouldn’t have been surprised that they all had one; if they didn’t they wouldn’t have been there. Stories of grandparents sheltered by Righteous Gentiles or who had miraculously escaped the Nazi barbarism or who had bravely stood up to it – which brings us to our next stop.

The Jewish Museum of Athens. This community, that was decimated during WWII, has a history going back more than 2,000 years, one which this little museum is dedicated to documenting. But it is most proud of its new exhibit detailing the lives of Jewish men and women who served as comrades-in-arms in the struggle against Nazi occupation.

The message it carries is particularly important today, and critical to convey to the many non-Jewish schoolchildren and teachers who visit, the vast majority of whom have never knowingly interacted with a Jew before entering the building. They have, however, heard the blatantly xenophobic diatribes of the Golden Dawn political party, which has repeatedly been castigated by scholars and journalists for being neo-Nazi, racist, anti-Semitic and fascist. Frighteningly, it received 7% of the popular vote in the last election, which takes us to our next station.

SYNTAGMA SQUARE. The venue, across from the Parliament building, where mass protests have been held regularly over the past few years. The week before I arrived, it was the site at which Golden Dawn attempted to distribute food to needy Greeks – if they could prove their Greek ethnicity.

It took several arrests and a volley of tear gas to disperse the crowd, though the stench of Holocaust denial and “racial superiority” long remained in the air. Against this background, it is easy to understand the museum’s effort to showcase the contribution Jews made to the national resistance, equal in every way to that of their countrymen.

I wasn’t permitted a peek into the future, however, only to dwell on the past or the quagmire of the present.

Onward, then, to the jewel in the crown of the Athenian Jewish community.

Athens’s Jewish Community School. Some 75% of the community’s children attend this institution. It is beautifully maintained and equipped with the most advanced pedagogic technology. Classroom walls showcase the pupils’ creative output. Judaic studies and Hebrew language are taught seriously. A Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony is held each Friday. It exudes a warm, supportive and intimate atmosphere with parents actively engaged in their children’s education.

And the number of pupils has nearly doubled in the past few years. That is the good news.

Less encouraging is that the increased enrollment, now nearing 150, is attributed in no small measure to the onset of economic hardship and the generous scholarships the community makes available to those in need – made possible in part by emergency aid extended by the Jewish Agency. After years of receiving disproportionately large donations from the Greek Jewish community though Keren Hayesod it was now payback time, a sterling example of ethos in action: “kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh” – all Jews are responsible for one another.

But this more somber reality is not limited to the financial sphere. The rate of intermarriage among the 5,000 Jews of Greece is now over 50%, and while that might be more or less comparable to levels elsewhere, the fact that the community is so small to begin with means that this demographic threatens to erode the critical mass necessary to maintain the community’s infrastructure. Furthermore, to the extent that religious observance may be taken as an indicator of a Jewish community’s ability to survive, it is worrisome that there may not be even a handful of local families strictly observant of Shabbat and kashrut.

Still, it is impossible to meet the local leadership and not come away impressed by its determination to assure a bright future for the community, and its dedication to five fundamental objectives: maintaining Jewish tradition, combating anti-Semitism, ensuring no child be denied enrollment in the school due to lack of means, surviving financially as a community, and assisting individuals facing economic hardship.

Which brings us to our last stop.

Jewish Community Center. It is here that a wide array of programs takes place for diverse segments of the population. It is also where much of the seminar I am taking part in is taking place. Organized jointly by Hanoar Hatzioni and the local shaliah (emissary) of the Jewish Agency, which supported the project along with the World Zionist Organization, its most important component was probably the interaction fostered between young Jews coming together from various communities in Europe.

Their deliberations regarding the challenges they face in their disparate host societies, their determination to participate personally in the Zionist venture, and their dedication to forging an ideological foundation for their educational undertakings all bode well for the future of the Jewish communities they represent.

Still, in disorienting times, it is hard to know if we are gazing at a sunrise or a sunset. Only time will tell if the glass is half empty or half full. In the meantime, though, it would be a betrayal of our legacy not to reach out to those who continue to labor on behalf of our people. The youngsters I had the privilege of engaging with in Greece, and the community leadership I was privileged to meet there, make it easy to do so, and to keep dreaming of a rosy future for our people even as grey clouds hover above. ■

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the executive of The Jewish Agency and the head of its Committee for Small Communities.

Basking in our bounty of discontent

Basking in our bounty of discontent

Jerusalem Post, April 25, 2013

Until last week I never thought to challenge the age-old dictum that true wealth comes from being content with one’s lot. Then along comes our indefatigable president in an Independence Day interview and, in his own inimitable way, challenges the ancient wisdom of our sages.

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Celebrating Herzl Day in Jerusalem
Shimon Peres vs Ben-Zoma. To the latter is ascribed the age-old adage that true wealth comes from being content with one’s lot, a maxim that, until last week, I had never thought to contest.

Then along comes our indefatigable president in an Independence Day interview with Channel 2’s Rina Matzliah and, in his own inimitable way, challenges the ancient wisdom of our sages.

As he is approaching the age of 90, and with the life experience he has amassed, I don’t begrudge him the right to do so.

Still, I found his observation on the matter a bit unsettling.

It had to do with what he believes to be the loftiest blessing our people have bequeathed to the human race. Not monotheism. Not the Bible. Not even drip irrigation or some newfangled hitech innovation. No.

“If you ask me,” said the president, “what the Jewish people’s greatest contribution is to the world, my answer is discontentment.”

Yes, true wealth, it would appear, results not from being happy with what one has, but from being unhappy with the way things are. “Because then,” he went on, “you create, you try to create and to change things.”

I suppose that’s another way of explaining tikkun olam, the deeply rooted Jewish ethic of striving to repair the world. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes another dictum, one most certainly not found among the sayings of our fathers. Because by tradition, we seem always to see things as damaged, fragmented or incomplete.

Complaining, in fact, is serious business for us, and nowhere does it find more serious expression than in our humor.

Remember the one about the two Jews vacationing at a Catskills resort? One of them remarks about how dreadful the food is. “And what’s worse,” says her friend, “is that the portions are so small.”

Even when something is terrible, we can’t seem to get enough of it.

Closer to home, I am reminded of the joke that made the rounds at the beginning of the mass Russian immigration nearly a generation back. An activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry meets surreptitiously with a refusenik in Moscow.

“What’s your economic situation like here?” he asks.

“Can’t complain,” says Vladimir.

“And your housing?” “Can’t complain about that, either,” comes the response.

“Then what about your sense of freedom, your ability to speak openly about things?” “Again, I really can’t complain,” he insists.

Clearly befuddled, the activist asks in frustration, “So then tell me, why are you willing to risk everything by applying to move to Israel?” “Because there I can complain!” Yes indeed. The untold riches that have awaited one wave of immigrants after another since the inception of the Zionist enterprise. But newcomer or veteran, it makes no difference. All of us seem to have the gift of perceiving our surroundings as imperfect while somehow driven to make them better.

And nothing attests to the power of this discontent more than the goings-on of the last two years, and the last several months in particular. The mass demonstrations demanding social justice during the summer of 2011 led to the unexpected election results in the winter of 2013 which, with a bit of luck, will in turn herald our own Israeli spring in the weeks to come.

Still, whatever the developments, Peres would caution us not to lull ourselves into a state of gratification.

“But today, when we are celebrating 65 years of statehood, can’t we feel satisfied?” asks Matzliah wistfully.

The president: “Yes, certainly. But – No! We can look back with satisfaction. But to feel satisfied today? Absolutely not!” WHICH BRINGS us to the celebration of Herzl Day, marked each year in the afterglow of Independence Day but deserving of mention in its own right. Back in 2004, 100 years after the death of the visionary of the Jewish state, the Knesset legislated that his birthday would be marked annually in our schools and on our army bases and in public events throughout the country, with study, ceremony and activity highlighting the dreams and deeds of Zionism’s founding father.

Nowhere is this felt more keenly than on the mount that bears his name, where earlier this week 1,000 of our finest youngsters gathered in the World Zionist Organization’s Herzl Center to participate in a series of workshops aimed at reinforcing their commitment to fulfilling the Zionist dream. Representing a dozen youth groups, they were all 18-year-olds who had taken a year off between high school and the army to give a year of volunteer service to the country that had nurtured them even before they would be called upon to defend it.

Here the president’s message was thoroughly taken to heart. From its inception, the Herzl Center was conceived as a place where the visitor would feel tremendous pride in everything that had already been achieved by others in years gone by – but also a similar degree of restlessness over the way things are now, so that they might be stimulated to consider their own role in shaping this nation as the exemplary society we set out to build.

“Look back with satisfaction,” says Shimon Peres. “But to feel satisfied today? Absolutely not!” Not if we want to make things better.

Which makes a recent poll regarding the degree of satisfaction we Israelis do feel about our lives here somewhat worrisome.

In a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel ranked eight out of 36 on the Life Satisfaction Index.

Are we really that obtuse, oblivious to all the troubles we need to contend with? Someone who seems to have a better grasp of the way things really are here in the Holy Land is Alasdair Conn, chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, he noted in an interview that “this is like a bomb explosion that we hear about in the news in Baghdad, or Israel or some other tragic place in the world.”

That’s us, just another tragic place in the world! Somewhat unbelievable, isn’t it, that that is how others perceive us.

Here it just doesn’t feel that way, does it? Maybe that’s because we have the freedom to complain, and the imagination to do so creatively.

May we be inspired by our president, then, to continue to remain dissatisfied with the present so that we will be able, in the future, to look back on the past with the deep sense of satisfaction deservedly felt today as we celebrate 65 years of statehood, basking in the bounty of our discontent, even as we keep dreaming of a better tomorrow. ■

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel.

The opinions expressed herein are his own.

Apartheid, genocide and the slander of Zionism

No, Israel does not sanction racism nor is it even remotely responsible for crimes against humanity. What we are guilty of, however, is at times being our own worst enemy.

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister; Photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer
And the winner is… recently we had three from Ethiopia in a single week. The first was Yityish Titi Aynaw, a 21-year-old Ethiopian-born Israeli woman who was just crowned Miss Israel. Nine years ago she arrived here with her family and, at the tender age of 12, set out to surmount innumerable hurdles of culture, language and socialization on the way to her successful integration into Israeli society, exemplified by her serving as an officer during her stint in the Israel Defense Forces.

The other two were here as our guests. Abraham Kabeto Ketla and Mihiret Anamo Anotonios came in first place in the men’s and women’s categories, respectively, of the Jerusalem Marathon.

Literally in the midst of all this, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Zionism as a crime against humanity in his address before the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Vienna. Ironically, the organization was established “to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions.” Yet remarkably, no one present protested the outrageous statement, though the body’s self-proclaimed aim is “to counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.” The acquiescence of silence.

Erdogan’s despicable characterization of the Jewish people’s noble movement for national liberation, and the shameful calm with which it was met, are only the latest manifestation of an interminable struggle to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state. It affects not only we who live here, but also our brethren and supporters abroad who find themselves on the front lines of our defense, particularly now, during the annual International Apartheid Week currently coming to a campus near you.

This well-orchestrated campaign that aims to bring about the boycott of, divestment from and sanctions against Israel (BDS) began in earnest with the 1975 United Nations resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism. That this infamous declaration was repealed in 1991 has done little to prevent Israel’s detractors from continuing to defame the Jewish state with impunity. Nor has the phenomenon been checked by Israel’s proud record in the public domain.

A fine example of our diversity and the public’s favorable reception of it: The three finalists in the latest episode of Israel’s immensely popular MasterChef reality show typify the heterogeneity of our society and the popular magnanimity with which it is accepted.

The winner of the competition was Tom Franz, a 39- year-old convert to Judaism who was born a German Catholic and is now a lawyer living in Tel Aviv. Runner-up was 27-year-old Salma Fiomy-Farij, a devout hijab-shrouded Muslim Arab nurse from Kafr Kasim. Third place went to Jackie Azoulay, a 29-year-old religious woman from the haredi city of Elad and the second of 14 children.

The spirit of camaraderie among the three was infectious and the mutual affection, particularly between the two women, evident in their hug of consolation, was genuine. Given that this was a cooking contest, it is appropriate to note that the audience – the largest ever of any Israeli TV broadcast – ate it up, devouring every morsel of the feel-good democracy and tolerance that went into that embrace.

Throw into this recipe of tolerance and harmony that 10 percent of our Knesset members are Arab and it is self-evident that Israel is not an apartheid state. Nor are we the country that presents the single greatest threat to world peace. We don’t even bear primary responsibility for our ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. What we sometimes are guilty of, however, is being our own worst enemy.

Which means I can’t end this column here as I had intended. I’d planned on offering a few more examples of the enlightened society that we are, alongside instances of our neighbors’ state-sponsored abuses of human rights (not to mention outright slaughter) before asking Prime Minister Erdogan who was calling the kettle black. The recent rash of attacks against Arabs perpetrated by Jews here at home, however, scuttled that idea.

THIS LATEST wave of violent bigotry began some two months ago with the virulently racist protests by Beitar Jerusalem fans against the decision of the football team’s management to sign two Muslim players from Chechnya. “Beitar Forever Pure” read the sign held aloft at the game played on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

That four of the squad’s supporters were later indicted for harassing the non-Jewish players, and that the team itself was fined NIS 50,000 because of the racist epithets hurled at the field during the game, offers some consolation, but very little. Particularly given the number of physical assaults since then.

The list is becoming hard to keep up with. Earlier this month, an Israeli citizen was accosted and ordered “Arab, out of the Kinneret,” before being beaten by four youths and hospitalized with a fractured jawbone. Two of those arrested for the incident were also implicated in an earlier attack on an Arab municipal worker in Tel Aviv. In a separate case, an Arab woman waiting at a light rail station in Jerusalem was allegedly harassed and punched in the face by three teenage girls. That was followed by stones being thrown at and shattering the windows of a car in which two teachers, one Arab and one Jewish, were making their way to a condolence call. Later that week, in Upper Nazareth, an Arab woman resident was spat at by teens and told to move out of the neighborhood.

Indeed all of this constitutes a “despicable and criminal” phenomenon, as it has been labeled by Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino. But it is also more than that. It is a challenge to our collective resolve to fulfill the promise of our Declaration of Independence, unequivocally calling for “the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants,” and explicitly ensuring “complete equality… irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Meeting that challenge is not the responsibility only of the police officers whom the commissioner charged with apprehending those responsible for these dastardly, nationalistically motivated crimes; it is the responsibility of us all. For it is not only our fellow human beings who are being threatened but also those values that are so fundamental to what we set out to build here. And they can be protected only through education and the establishment of acceptable social norms.

In this regard, it would be doing no one any favor to ignore that a large majority of those who have been apprehended in connection with this wave of nationalistically motivated violence have been described as religiously observant, a good number of them yeshiva students.

Should we take all this as a “wake-up call”? It is too late for that. The alarm was already sounded last August when a Palestinian was severely beaten by Jewish teens in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Then someone apparently hit the snooze button, and we all drifted off to sleep again. Now it is time to open our eyes. These displays of racism may be isolated and anomalous. They may reflect only the aberrant behavior of a tiny minority. They may be antithetical to the legal and moral foundations on which our justice system rests. But they are no less unconscionable for being so and cannot be ignored.

If we have any right to expect that the world shout down the Turkish prime minister’s loathsome condemnation of Zionism, if we expect students on campuses around the world to counter the propaganda of Apartheid Week, we must first speak out vociferously and resolutely against the shameful displays of xenophobia to which we have recently borne witness.

A step in the right direction was taken this week by the Education Ministry, which instructed all schools to hold discussions on the matter in honor of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (One can only hope the directive was also noted by those religious educational institutions operating outside the authority of the ministry.) But while commendable, the message will be internalized by our youngsters only if reinforced by their parents. In addition, then, to raising our voices loudly in the public domain, we must also speak quietly with our children at home.

Zionism. Think again

Educators from Israel and N. America are working together to create a language for teaching about Israel in a way that will make it integral to Jewish identity.

Working together to create language for teaching on Israel
Photo by:  iCenter

“Stop referring to us as Diaspora Jews,” a leading Israel educator living overseas admonished us. “That’s not how we see ourselves.

We’re Jews living in North America, like you are Jews living in Israel.”

“It’s not the same,” replied an Israeli.

“Calling where you live ‘the Diaspora’ isn’t a put-down; it’s simply an expression of the special place that the Land of Israel has always held in Jewish tradition.

If Israel is our homeland then there has to be terminology that distinguishes between where I live and where you live that is different from the way in which we distinguish between Jewish life in Canada and Argentina. Otherwise we’re denying the unique claim that the land of our forebears has on us.

Or the claim that we have on it. How can you explain to your students, never mind to the rest of the world, why we have any right whatsoever to this sliver of territory if you don’t believe our relationship to it is unlike our relationship to any other country where Jews live?” The ancient debate between the Jews of the Land of Israel and those of Babylonia revived. Is Israel at the center of Jewish life or just another place where Jews live? Is “Next year in Jerusalem” a promise or a prayer? Does peoplehood, territory or Torah define what we are all about? A few of these questions were raised at a recent conference on Israel education in Chicago that brought together some 90 educators from Israel and North America, comprising both veteran practitioners and a younger generation of graduate students and educational entrepreneurs.

Organized by the World Zionist Organization and the iCenter (a hub of Israel education in North America) and sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Kelman Center for Jewish Education of Tel Aviv University, the purpose of the gathering was to initiate a far-reaching dialogue on the role of Israel in the development of Jewish identity. And to challenge one another to think anew about the relationship between us and between Israel and Jews around the world.

“I don’t see Israel as the state of the Jewish people today,” ventures one of the young Americans. “Israel doesn’t want me. It won’t let me practice the kind of Judaism I believe in,” she explained, referring to a series of unpleasant experiences she had as a Reform Jew during an extended period of study in Jerusalem. Then a moment of hesitation. “It’s not that I don’t love Israel,” she continues, “it’s just that it’s easier for me to love it from a distance.”

“The ultimate love-hate relationship,” interjects one of the next-generation Israelis. “It’s not simple for me either.

Because I care so much, I’m really bothered by all the things that are wrong with the society. That’s why I’ve gotten involved the way I have. And why I need you to be involved too. The genuine pluralism you have here, we need to figure out how to make it work back home.”

“You guys are amazing,” remarks one of the older participants, referring to the impressive array of initiatives undertaken by the accomplished delegation of Israeli 20- and 30-somethings. “You’re so involved. Do you represent your generation or are you the exception?” The Israelis exchange glances for a moment, not sure what to say.

“Not everyone cares,” one of them finally volunteers.

“Of course not,” says another, “but more and more of our peers are stepping out and saying this is not the society we want and finding ways to fix it.”

“It’s called Zionism,” says one of their peers, without hesitation. “A commitment to building something special. It’s not just about supporting a Jewish state or even about loving the country, but a dedication to really turning it into a light unto the nations.”

THE SAME idealism surfaced in another encounter. The young Israelis are asked what concerns they wake up with in the morning. Separately, the North Americans are asked what they think the Israelis will say. The Israelis talked about social and economic challenges.

The North Americans were surprised; they were sure their counterparts would say “security.”

“I always think of Israel as a place that needs to be defended,” explains one of them. “It’s hard for me to imagine you aren’t preoccupied with the physical threats you are facing.”

“Sure, there’s always the tension,” explains one of the Israeli participants, “but it’s kind of more like background noise. I’d love to be able to get rid of it, to think that my kids might actually grow up without it. In the meantime, though, I’m not going to let my enemies dictate my agenda. There are things I can do something about and things that I can’t. And that’s what we need to teach towards: engaging young Jews in shaping Israeli society.”

Still, the question hovers in the air.

“Is that Zionism or social activism? Is what you are doing in Israel any different than what I am doing here? Why get stuck on the terminology?” One answer comes in the form of a reflection on the conversation offered by an educator who just returned to Israel after an extended sojourn abroad. “It was an interesting experience, starting to use the ‘Z-word’ again after many years of abstinence. I am a Zionist. Yes, I will use the word. Just like I am a feminist. Those words are important. They imply a commitment to some ideologically based values.

And I believe in them. There is something about the term ‘Zionism’ rather than ‘pro-Israel’ that also implies an active, ongoing co-creation of the Jewish State, that I personally want to be involved with. But,” she continued, “that is the personal stuff. As an educator, I have to ask other questions, about whether the word ‘Zionism’ is helpful to us in reaching our broader educational goals. And that is where I am not sure. But at the very least I am certainly challenged, for the first time in years, to think again.”

Thinking again is always a good idea.

For those of us living in Israel, it is important that we ask “why” from time to time. If we can’t understand it ourselves, we can’t expect to be able to explain it to others. Is it because we believe Israel is central to Jewish life, or because it is comfortable here? If the latter, should it become uncomfortable, does that mean we get up and leave? Or are we here for some higher purpose? In which case we had better be able to explain that as well.

Or maybe it is because we believe Israel must exist, we feel the obligation to ensure that existence and consider being here the ultimate way of doing that.

Judaism, after all, has always been about fulfilling obligations. Then we’d best be able to explain why Israel needs to exist to those who are no longer so sure, and how fulfilling obligations can also be selffulfilling in an age when self-fulfillment is generally about “me” and not about the collective.

For those living abroad, there are other questions. If Israel is not the center, why do I care any more about it than I do about any other Jewish community around the world? Why am I drawn to it? Why am I bothered by criticism of it? Why do I feel pride in every Israeli achievement and shame in each of its missteps? Is my love for Israel conditional? Will I count myself among its supporters only if I can abide its government and its policies? Or is there something deeper? Am I an outside observer, judging from afar, or an active stakeholder, somehow responsible for what transpires across the ocean? Is my connection to the land, the state or the people of Israel? For one of the young participants, the answers are less important than the conversation itself. “I’ve been involved in bringing Israelis and American Jews together before, but I never could really articulate why,” she says at the end of the conference. “Now I know. This is the first time in my life I feel complete. This is my calling.”

I think what she’s saying is that as long as we keep talking, we are one. In which case, the gathering will have served its purpose.

Between hope and despair

“New Year’s Eve, 2063. Israel is 115 years old. The Jewish state is much as it was in 2013, only more so.”

Israeli passport [illustrative photo]
Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

“New Year’s Eve, 2063. Israel is 115 years old. The Jewish state is much as it was in 2013, only more so.”

So began Daniel Gordis’s New Year’s prediction of things to come in the decades ahead (“New Year’s Eve, 2063,” December 28). He went on to present two scenarios in which we might find ourselves 50 years hence, neither one offering much to look forward to and neither one of which, he pointedly noted, included a settlement with the Palestinians. And for that, I hold him accountable for betraying the Zionist dream.

Without such a settlement, and without any sense of urgency about reaching one, we are, at best, doomed to continue muddling along – and at worst, to disappearing.

Prophecies such as his are likely to be self-fulfilling, and self-destructive to boot. They relieve those with the responsibility of navigating us toward a better future from having to make any sincere effort to do so, and encourage the rest of us to live in a perpetual state of resignation. That’s not the Israel I came to live in. It’s not an Israel I am prepared to reconcile myself to.

I know that the ongoing occupation will continue to drain our resources, sap our strength, weaken our resolve, undermine our morale, erode our morality, distance our friends, alienate our supporters and dissolve our spirit.

So, rather than throwing up my hands and blaming the current impasse on the absence of a serious partner with whom to negotiate a two-state solution, which is the only solution to the morass in which we find ourselves, I am determined to make every effort to go more than halfway in pursuit of peace, even if I shouldn’t have to.

“Don’t be self-righteous; be smart,” goes a favorite Israeli adage. Good advice I encourage all of us to heed.

Happily, I am not alone. Much to the chagrin of our government, President Shimon Peres recently referred to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a “partner for peace” and urged the governing coalition to relate to him as such, recognizing that his public statements “in favor of peace and against terrorism” are “courageous to the point of being life threatening.”

Likud Beytenu promptly responded with a knee-jerk reaction reflecting the political paralysis into which it has boxed itself: “It’s very unfortunate that the president chose to express a personal political view that is detached from public opinion.”

What a bizarre counterpunch! Do we not deserve to hear from our leaders exactly how they see things, even if their views should be detached from public opinion? Though in this case, I daresay, our president’s pronouncement was not. Rather, I read into it an expression of the public’s deeply rooted hope, rather than the ruling parties’ submission to despair.

And it is that hope, as long as it is realistic – and Peres and I firmly believe it is – that we must nurture. Which brings me to the reaction I received to my last column, in which I touted Peter Beinart as a good old-fashioned Zionist for reminding us in his Crisis of Zionism of the ideals that launched our movement and that have always been integral to it. I was surprised not by those who attacked me for my position; that I anticipated. Rather, I was caught off-guard by the depth of angst expressed over what is going on here by those who agreed with me – in particular by those abroad.

“I’m afraid that Beinart is correct in saying that the next generation of American Jews will care less and less about Israel,” wrote one of my readers. “I see it in myself. Even with having spent five years in Israel, being very active in my shul, sending all my kids to Jewish day school, having Judaism be absolutely central to my identity, and having a son who chose to serve as a combat soldier in the Israeli army, I find myself less and less desirous of thinking about Israel. That’s probably got more to do with my feeling that the situation is hopeless and depressing than because Israel has not become the nation your hero Theodor Herzl envisioned.

“Life as a Jew where I live is very comfortable, satisfying and dynamic. Why, really, do I, or all the other Jews here, need Israel? Why do I need to be miserable every time I read something in the paper about how the world sees Israel? Of course I want Israel to thrive, to be the wonderful, ethical country of the Jews, to have it be an appreciated member of the world community. I just don’t see how that can happen.”

I do. “Od lo avda tikvatenu” – we have not relinquished our hope. The words of our national anthem should be as stirring and as inspirational now as ever. If, through 2,000 years of exile and unimaginable suffering, we were able to find the strength to sustain ourselves, it is unthinkable that after only 65 years of independence we should give up.

The Zionist vision of creating both a safe haven for the Jewish people and an exemplary society by which the entire world might be enriched is as compelling as ever and the challenges are no more staggering than they were at the beginning of the last century. Then, a handful of dedicated pioneers made fields out of stone-strewn terrain that had been neglected for generations.

They literally made the deserts bloom, created reservoirs in a parched land, planted hundreds of thousands of trees, revived the Hebrew language, absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants and staved off the coordinated invasion of five Arab armies even before we really had one that we could call our own.

In comparison, the trials with which we must contend today are anything but overwhelming. And our dedication to making right those things that are wrong should be a source of pride. While it is the hi-tech start-ups listed on NASDAQ that continue to make headlines, we have just as many societal start-ups, founded and driven by young, idealistic social entrepreneurs dedicated to reclaiming the Zionist dream. They may not be as wealthy as their computer-savvy counterparts, but they are every bit as talented and driven, promising that we shall all be enriched by their efforts. We also have as many candidates vying for a seat in the Knesset who are passionately dedicated to the pursuit of peace as there are those who have relegated an accord with our Palestinian neighbors to the bin of hogwash.

There is no foregone conclusion as to how many of each will sit in our next parliament. That we have 34 parties running for election, however, means that there are a great many people who care desperately about what this country is going to end up looking like.

After 2,000 years of longing, it is far too early, and far too easy, for any of us to give up on fashioning it in accordance with his or her image.

Whoever does abandon the effort is relinquishing the country to those whose vision for the Jewish state is different from their own. That applies to those in Israel who are contemplating a ballot boycott as well as to those abroad who would distance themselves from what is going on here rather than redoubling their efforts to impact the course we are taking.

New Year’s Eve, 2063. Israel is 115 years old. The Jewish state is very different than it was 50 years ago. Mainly because of the peace accords that were eventually reached with its Palestinian neighbors. And that happened because in 2013, inspired by their president, enough of its people chose innovation over stagnation and went to the polls to vote hope over despair. Keep dreaming.

Beinart’s good old-fashioned Zionism

Martin Buber once observed that a people cannot be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. Are we ready for redemption?

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Engaged as I am in a lifelong struggle to keep my weight under control, I refuse to get on the scale after any occasion on which I know I’ve eaten way beyond what I should have. Which means I haven’t weighed myself for a week now.

Do I think by not looking down at those discouraging digits on the dial, I will eliminate the unwanted pounds brought on by latkes and doughnuts? Of course not, but it does allow me to avoid confronting truths that I prefer not to deal with.

For much the same reason, if I’d known what I was in for, I might never have opened Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. From what I’d heard about the book, I expected to be exasperated by a bleeding-heart liberal who really didn’t understand what was going on here, a quasi-supporter of Israel who, from the comfort of his cosseted life in America, had the audacity to lecture those of us whose lives are on the line about the need to risk our safety in the name of American liberalism that has little applicability in our neighborhood.

Instead, I found myself staring directly at what I had become in the eyes of others after long avoiding that proverbial good look in the mirror. Captivated by Beinart’s sobering account of the erosion of Israel’s ethical high ground, I was unable to avert my gaze from the unbecoming blemishes his writing exposed.

And while I don’t concur with everything he describes, I did find myself agreeing with much more of it than I am comfortable admitting. Even if Beinart’s narrative is infused with a degree of naivete, there can be no denying that it includes at least an equal measure of truth. And if he is overly forgiving of Palestinian culpability for things being as they are, his objective was not to influence Muslim behavior but to coax the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora to press more aggressively for peace and social justice. In doing so, he advocates eloquently for the sort of Israel of which I keep dreaming.

Ultimately, The Crisis of Zionism is a passionate plea that we abide by the principles of decency and democracy enshrined in our Declaration of Independence while aspiring to the noble moral standards bequeathed us by Theodor Herzl, who is quoted extensively. For all the brouhaha, Beinart is a champion of good old-fashioned Zionism, zealously concerned that Israel is moving steadily toward its demise as both a Jewish and a democratic state, an end he is afraid will come about less “because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.”

Beinart wrote what he wrote not to harangue us, but to sound a wake-up call. His analysis is not that of a disinterested party who bears no accountability for what is going on here, but rather that of a member of the tribe who feels personally responsible for doing anything and everything he can to prevent us from continuing along a trajectory of self-destruction.

While exceedingly worried that we are nearing the point of irreversibility, he wrote what he wrote in the hope that collectively we might yet avoid our own undoing.

His is a message particularly pertinent in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense, the UN decision to grant Palestine non-member observer state status and our government’s response authorizing the planning of 3,000 new housing units in disputed territory.

With whatever weapon systems we have that might prevent missiles from landing in Israel, he writes, “they will be of no use on the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march, non-violently, to demand the very ‘equality of social and political rights’ promised them in our Declaration of Independence.”

Metaphorically, that is pretty much what happened in New York last month. And he is concerned not only that our actions will lead to the unraveling of Israel’s delicate social fabric and its isolation in the world, but also that “if American Jewish leaders continue to defend the Israeli government at the expense of Israeli democracy, they may find their own children and grandchildren cheering these protesters on.”

His children, too. Beinart sends them to a Jewish day school, maintains a kosher home, frequents an Orthodox synagogue and, like Yehuda Halevi before him, lives in the utmost reaches of the West while his heart is in the East. But all of this will not be enough to keep the next generation bound to Israel, he argues, if we abandon the moral foundations of what it is that the Zionist movement set out to do.

“Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel,” he insists, quoting from the innumerable biblical sources that say just that. If we teach our children that our tradition demands of us that we not oppress the stranger, forsake the poor or pervert justice, and they perceive that we are acting otherwise, then we should not be surprised if they abandon us and come to question the very idea of a Jewish state.

Nor should we be surprised if that Jewish state were to disintegrate. The last two times that happened, he reminds us, “our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse.”

STILL, THERE is one cardinal matter about which I take issue with Beinart, and that is his determination as to how to make things right: his call for a “Zionist” boycott of West Bank settlements.

Though he pointedly insists that sustained pro- Israel activity must be integral to any such campaign, the proposal must be rejected on a number of grounds, even by those sympathetic to his contention that the settlements are responsible for much that is wrong with Israel today.

1. With the exception of a number of illegal outposts, which, for the most part, have been removed over the years, the settlements were established lawfully.

It would be unfair to punish those who have been implementing the policy of democratically elected governments (including those on the Left), rather than seeking to effect a change in regime by effecting change in public sentiment.

2. I have railed against rabbis who instruct soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements and who call upon their disciples to resist evacuation. But how different are the rabbis’ efforts to keep the settlements in place from Beinart’s call to action that he hopes will lead to their removal? Besides, I am afraid of the consequences. Civil disobedience is one thing; civil war is something else.

3. Even if I were able to make the case for boycotting the settlements, I am not prepared to risk legitimizing the contemptible international campaign that calls for a boycott of Israel as a whole and that seeks to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state. The line that Beinart draws between one sort of embargo and the other is far too fine and therefore unacceptably risky.

My rejection of Beinart’s prescription of how to heal that which ails Israeli society does not mean I reject his diagnosis of the disease. I merely argue for alternative treatment. Israelis have the ballot box, and with elections on the horizon the opportunity is immediate. For Diaspora Jews, there are numerous NGOs through which they might strive to influence Israeli policy.

The bottom line is this: One need not agree with the particulars of Beinart’s account of the failed peace process and his strategy for reviving it in order to take note of the broad strokes he paints in regard to what he says is “the central Jewish question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield power.” It is a question particularly pertinent during these days immediately following Hanukka.

In the reading of the prophets recited this past Shabbat, leadership engaged in rebuilding the Jewish homeland is enjoined not to forsake the path of righteousness in its pursuit of national revival. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” More easily preached than practiced, but nevertheless expressive of what we must strive to be as an antidote to what we might otherwise become. “Either our generation will help Israel reconcile its democratic and Zionist ideals,” Beinart writes, “or we will make our children choose between them.”

A people cannot be redeemed until it recognizes the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them, Martin Buber once observed. It is time we get on the scale and look down before the bulges we’d prefer to ignore (including the one expanding into E1) grow to proportions that make it impossible to read the numbers altogether.