Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula, the director of CLAL recently shared with me some of his feelings about Politics, Jews and Israel. He noted that Democrats seem to favor diplomacy in dealing with the Israel/Palestinian issues, and Republicans are more inclined to support Israel no matter what the situation may be. So it is no surprise that Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans both see themselves as the true defenders of Israel when all they are really doing is finding in the words of the candidates a justification for their own pre-existing notions of what support for Israel must imply. It has very little to do at all with what the State of Israel might really need at this juncture in history. Rabbi Kula notes that it is almost as if Israel is not a real state anymore, but some kind of a “test” American Jews use to explain perhaps our own inner spiritual life, rather than the political reality of the modern state. We tend to pick and choose the data that fits our needs and that best helps us confirm our positions.
All of this, he implies, leads to the kind of political pandering we see from the candidates for national office today, each one trying to say the right combination of “code” words that will gather the most people to vote for the candidate. Rabbi Kula expresses concern that someday our non-Jewish fellow citizens will begin to ask exactly what this “support” for Israel is all about and the answers may mark the end of, or the erosion of, American support for the State of Israel.
Rabbi Kula is right. In this day and age, it is very hard to speak of Israel as “my home land, right or wrong”. To be sure there are plenty of Jews and Jewish communal leaders who will not tolerate any negative speech about Israel. They feel as if there are too many enemies of the State and of Judaism to give them more words with which they can attack us. Such people think that if we only speak good of Israel, that others will not speak bad of her. This has led us to ignore all the problems that Israel is facing and to put our heads in the sand about how we can find solutions.
I agree with Rabbi Kula but would paint this picture a bit differently. I do not feel that the issue is one of American politics but of Israeli politics. My daughter came back from her Rabbinical School year in Israel very unhappy with Israel. She was appalled by the way they treated gays in Jerusalem and with the corruption in government and the social problems she encountered. Frankly I am unhappy with all of that and more. I don’t like the way Masorti/Conservative Jews are treated by Israeli politicians or by the government. I don’t always like the foreign policy decisions of the State and I don’t like the way the Israeli political parties pay for votes by giving money to people who promise to vote for them while infrastructure crumbles.
My time in Minnesota, where the 35W bridge collapsed last year, only points to the fact that we should be profoundly unhappy with things is this country too. Perhaps the coming elections here and in Israel will change things, but maybe they won’t. The point is that there is much here in the USA that needs improvement, but we don’t go around saying this country is not worth the time or trouble.
For both the USA and Israel, there are good and bad. The fact that college students are still filling Birthright programs and returning energized is a good thing. That Americans still go to Israel to live is another good thing. I agree that nothing can be changed as long as American Jewish leadership does not address the flaws in Israel and in the USA. When we talk only good about Israel we will not help them change what needs changing. Years ago, when they told us American Rabbis did not count, we protested, withheld support and showed them that we do count and the situation in Israel changed.
What we need today, at the leadership level, is a conversation with Israeli leadership about the serious issues that will affect how much money is raised at UJA and through Israel Bonds. We are seeing a new generation of Jews in the United States, who did not grow up without a Jewish State and who don’t understand why it is a State where we can’t talk about her flaws. If they are to support Israel, they will want to know about civil rights for homosexual citizens, of Arab citizens, for Masorti Jews and for all other minorities who don’t seem to be able to get a fair shake in the Jewish State. When National leaders start asking the hard questions to politicians in Israel, they will listen, like it or not, because Israel still depends on our financial and political support. Military support is one thing, we do need to make sure that the Palestinian issues are not perceived out of the context of a 60 year long war, but we also need to ask the hard questions about fiscal responsibility, corruption and basic civil rights.
We need to stand up for these qualities in this country as well. No matter if the conversation is about Israel or America it is not “My Country – Right or Wrong” but, as stated by Senator Carl Schurz back in 1872, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Our obligation as Jewish leaders could not be summed up better.

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