Last week, the Israeli government suspended plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in so doing ostracizing a large portion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel and abroad. After plans were put aside, Jews around the world, most notably American Reform Jews, voiced their significant displeasure, noting their feelings that Israel is willfully hostile toward the interests of liberal Jewish communities globally. Some even went so far as to claim that Israeli Jews “hate” Jews living in the Diaspora.
The problem comes in the idea that Israeli Judaism is in any way concerned with what is happening in the rest of the Jewish world, or that it is considerate of us one way or the other. Apathy seems more appropriate than hostility. While Jews across the globe send money to our “homeland,” there has been very little that leads anyone to believe that there is any significant influence exerted by Jews outside of Israel.
As long as Israel is going to wear the mantle of being the Jewish homeland, they have an obligation to represent the interests of all jews. That is a tall order for a people that so rarely agree unilaterally on much of anything. But Israel’s representation of global Judaism only works so long as we continue to allow it to be the case.
What that means is that a certain level of knowledge and involvement is required that hasn’t been seen from Americans concerned with Israeli affairs. We can’t sit in our congregations and our homes thousands of miles away and criticize Israel while ignorant of the politics and demographics that make up the country. If we want to be truly involved and engaged, we have to go out and invest ourselves in the realities that Israelis are dealing with on a regular basis.
To do this, we have to deepen our involvement through grappling with the tough questions. Jewish educational institutions across America have done a great disservice to American Jews by over-simplifying the relationship with Israel. We need to know more than hummus and falafel. We need to know more than Israeli dancing and IDF simulations. We even need to know more than just conflict and war. We need to know what it is like to be an Israeli, right now, today, what it truly means to be a Jew living in the homeland of our people.
Birthright poses as a solution to this problem. Send people to Israel for 10 days at a point in their identity formation that they will learn to love and support Israel, and that love will endure beyond their experience. Well, the values of caring for Israel are certainly established, but Birthright does preciously little to meaningfully educate or engage students about the politics or conflicts or ideologies of the region, and certainly not enough about what a young person can do to get involved in the many organizations and nonprofits that exist in the country for exerting influence as a Jew.
Moreso than at any time that I can remember, American Jews can identify with living in a country with a conflict of ideology. We know what it’s like to experience the kind of philosophical differences that Israel politics involves. We need not shy away from really engaging with these political and ideological questions: in fact, we have an obligation to involve ourselves thoughtfully with those challenges.
There are a multitude of ways that American Jews can make their voices heard in Israel. There are organizations and institutions that all are attempting to create meaningful change that American Jews can believe in. Taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the real issues will allow us the opportunity to get involved in ways that we can’t do by donating to “Israel”. Israelis don’t care what American Jews have to say, because, for all intents and purposes, Jewish Americans aren’t saying much of substance in a consistent and powerful way.
The American Jewish population is in control of enough man-power and enough financial discretion that we could be a powerful force in telling Israel how we want the Jewish state to represent us. To this point, we have been operating under the assumption of good faith, something that was fairly loudly declared false a week ago. As long as Israel continues to call itself the homeland of the Jews, it is our obligation to get involved and make our voices heard. That is the only way that we will have a strong, meaningful Jewish state in the land of Israel.