Israel, Peoplehood

Only Love Can Break Your Heart: What An Answer to “How Do We Love Israel” Can Look Like in the Mainstream Jewish Community

“Q: What is the responsibility of an American Jew to Israel, especially when it comes to the conflict with Palestinians?

A1: My responsibility is to protect Israel and defend it against any and all external criticism.

A2: My responsibility is to criticize Israel when I think that is deserved, including when the critics are non-Jews.”

In the American Jewish community today, these are, in summary form, the two main answers to the critical question of what our responsibility is to arguably the most divisive issue at the moment: follow what has been the mainstream line for decades and stand up for Israel in the face of more or less any criticism, or criticize its policies openly and consistently.

For 25 years, I have been firmly in the second camp. Like many fellow critics of Israeli policy and anti-Occupation activists, my concerns have been rooted in my sense of what Judaism teaches, following the path of Martin Buber’s view of Zionism. And at least in my case, I have fought–unsuccessfully–to have mainstream American Jewish community organizations, from day schools to synagogues, consider and come around to my view and cease supporting the Israeli government’s Occupation policies.  

The closed doors and negative and harsh responses I have received over the years – that I am “disloyal,” “anti-Israel,” an anti-Semite, among others – caused me to feel like walking away from Israel entirely, even though I have criticized Israel precisely because of my Jewish values and understanding of Torah and history. I am not alone; an increasing number of American Jews say they are also moving away from Israel. There has seemed to be no space in between to question, to be uncertain, to search for nuances, to have an honest conversation that gets into painful and uncomfortable territory, to move away from either/or and “both sides” to recognize there are myriad sides, and to acknowledge that just about everyone is both right and wrong. 

Then my mainstream synagogue offered a remarkable program this year called “How Do We Love Israel?” Facilitated by an experienced rabbi, the program offered me and 20+ fellow congregants from across perspectives to find that place in the middle, to be uncomfortable in a safe space, to question–not just others, but ourselves. 

This kind of program does not, in itself, change the polarization between the two camps and it is not a recipe for solutions to the conflict itself, but it’s the kind of start that I — and, I would argue, the entire American Jewish community – so desperately need in order to move past the current state of division, toxicity, stagnation, and creeping disconnection. Although the need is clear among adults, as the program showed, it may be even moreso among American Jewish youth. 

This is what American Jews need from each other, it’s what our kids need from us, and it’s what our ultimate responsibility to Israelis (and Palestinians) may ultimately be.

The All-Important “Context”

My synagogue is a large Conservative shul, with more than 1700 families..

In the years before the pandemic, Israel-related issues had been less prominent, as the clergy focused on strengthening the community. Israel issues were not absent entirely by any means; rather, the rabbis emphasized other issues and programs that established the synagogue as a vibrant spiritual community rooted in Torah, love, and justice. 

In mid-2021, after a planned community trip to Israel was canceled because of the pandemic, the synagogue introduced a range of Israel-related programs, including the one that is the subject of this post. It was called “How Do We Love Israel?,” intended as our homegrown/adapted version of Resetting the Table

I share the above context because, well, it matters. Not every community or organization in the American Jewish community is ready or able to have even a small subset of its community dive into challenging Israel conversations, large and solid enough to withstand difficult moments, or led by clergy and staff skilled and confident enough (and with the firm confidence of the board in them) to navigate the road. Maybe better stated, every community and organization can (indeed, must) do so, but it’s critical to be conscious of the history and community dynamics beforehand.

What’s In A Name    

As to the program itself, let’s start with the name: “How Do We Love Israel?” This is such an important frame and effort to ensure everyone has a space, especially those like me whose love of Israel has been routinely questioned, if not entirely dismissed. To be honest, I myself am not always sure what that love is, or whether it even exists. Coming into the program with the direct affirmation from the synagogue that someone with my background and history could be seen as “loving” Israel proved essential to its success, something I did not really notice or appreciate at the outset.

Perhaps more meaningfully for me, over the course of the program, I observed several of my fellow participants really wrestle with this question and consider which of the two camps above they fell in. Or perhaps realizing that if they thought they fell into one camp before the program, actually they may have been searching for a new one without fully knowing it. 

For many in the mainstream, the assertion that they love Israel is simply unquestioned, at least openly. It can be an expectation, a threshold to entry, just as renouncing Israel is quickly becoming a threshold to entry to progressive spaces. As a result, many who have harbored doubts somewhere within their hearts or minds about one issue or another related to Israeli policy have not had the space or permission to let those develop or emerge, let alone voice them openly. 

For someone like me, then, who has been firmly on the outside of the mainstream when it comes to Israeli policy, my starting assumption is often that everyone in a synagogue (or extending outward, who is active with a mainstream community organization, such as local Federation chapter/JCRC) holds the Camp 1 view in an entirely unquestioning manner, just as they may easily assume that by falling in Camp 2 that I do not love Israel at all. The name – and the self-reflective yet inclusive question – of this program helped all of us begin to overcome those assumptions and objections. 

Caffeinate, Don’t Alienate 

The program itself focused on a number of the hardest and most essential topics in the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel today: What is Zionism? Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism? Should American Jews Care About Israel? What Are the Generational Gaps on How We Love Israel? 

For each session (any of which could be a year’s worth of programming unto itself), we received a range of readings from multiple perspectives beforehand, from Peter Beinart to Rabbi Sacks, from national leaders to academics to local perspectives; sometimes we discussed the readings extensively, and other times we only touched on them. But my sense was that everyone felt bothered by something in at least one reading each time. Not surprisingly, I would learn that the one piece I could barely get through because it made me so angry and frustrated was the piece that spoke to someone else as pure truth, and vice versa. 

What mattered was that we stayed with the uncomfortable readings. The pieces I would normally scroll past on Facebook or in The Forward I forced myself to read, and the ones that I probably would have “liked” and promoted (maybe without even fully reading, just based on the author or first few paragraphs), I now found myself looking at more critically. I was pleased to know that folks who had never read anti-Occupation pieces were now being exposed to them, and I needed to remind myself of the love that drives many on the right, after spending years working on my own responses to their points. 

We then had 90 minutes once per month to come together and discuss in different ways: breakout groups, focused questions to answer, role-plays. Most of us did not know each other beforehand, so the first few months were slower and friendlier, as we built trust and found our way to a safe space. Over time, the discussions grew more pointed and challenging, and that is when they really took off. 

My views and activism on Israel have twice driven me away from synagogues, including an earlier generation of my current synagogue in a fairly dramatic way. This time, when I expressed opinions that previously led to me being alienated, they resulted in me simply being more caffeinated, as one fellow participant after another asked to meet for coffee to learn more and discuss. 

We didn’t seek common ground to ignore our differences or try to convince each other, so much as a respectful and open ground, where we listened and learned first. And in my mind, we achieved it. When certain people in the group speak, I still think I know more or less what they will say, as much as I imagine they likely think they know what I will say. Sometimes what is expected happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I found myself listening, and being listened to, in a different way, even when the conversation fell along somewhat typical party lines.   

Only Love Can Break Your Heart

The most interesting, revealing, and ultimately effective component of the program was the “case study.” In these, a participant presented their own challenges with answering the question of how they love Israel. What was ultimately true for most everyone was that their love of Israel has caused pain, in one way or another. 

As Neil Young sang many years ago, “only love can break your heart.” And what I felt most acutely throughout each case study was that millions of America Jews have a broken heart about Israel in one way or another. Not from hatred or ambivalence, but from a place of love. When that broken heart has nowhere to turn, of course, that’s when those other feelings can set in. 

But the core of so many of those broken hearts is love. I started out expecting most of my fellow participants to come from the right, with a few on the left. The reality seemed to be that there were a few of us clearly on the right and on the left. Others may identify with one side or another if you ask them, or feel that they are in the middle, but mostly they want a new place to explore, to ask, to learn, to feel their pain and work through it without the burdens or expectations that come from labels. 

These are all people with deep connections, who have lived in Israel, who donate to Israeli organizations, who send their kids to Jewish day schools, whose family members and friends still live there. And even if the questions they have are narrower or less consuming than mine, they are there – from how to connect to their own education and history to how to impart connection to their children and grandchildren. And even admitting the questions are there can be painful.

And simply and sadly put, the mainstream Jewish community today does not offer them anywhere to turn. Frankly speaking, neither do organizations on the left and outside the mainstream, as they, too, often expect a certain form of belief or representation or adherence to certain assumptions and talking points. Israeli policy can make it hard enough to love Israel, but it’s harder still when you’re only given those two basic camps to choose from. That is what is breaking hearts, as much as any problematic policy or political statement. 

I knew my own heart was broken by refusing to be in, or acknowledged by, the mainstream, but I had no idea how many others were with me, even though they are firmly rooted still within the mainstream. The question, then, is how long that will last and what makes it change.

How Do We Keep Improving on How We Love Israel?

I came away with many feelings from this program (don’t get me wrong; we did also have a lot of fun), but the main one is that this is what I have been asking for all these years without knowing it, and more of this is what our community needs, especially in Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools. More than exposure to facts, contexts, and updated talking points, we need training to have the confidence and compassion to be open to other experiences, pain, and forms of love. We need critical listening and thinking more than training in delivering propaganda. We need to trust, to be resilient, and, more than anything, to be honest with ourselves, our communities, our organizations about what is happening, what it means, and how we connect to it. 

We don’t need millions spent on more curricula or slick social media campaigns; we need time and space to consider our broken hearts and those of others.  

Do I wish this shul, the Conservative movement, my kids’ former day school, the regional JCRC, etc. took a more balanced position and were open to criticizing Israel more directly? Yes, because I think it is essential for change in Israel itself, and I trust my own experience and the work of the myriad organizations in Israel doing the work on the ground. And I will never stop fighting to support their efforts on the ground.

But now I feel at a different level that this is simply not how these organizations and many of their members have chosen to love Israel. They decided they need to follow a certain model that hews closer to defining love as not being publicly critical, and those decisions are hard to change, and they won’t change by me or anyone else yelling at them. It saddens me to know how few American Jews know about the real work of Machsom Watch or Breaking the Silence or ACRI. I used to ascribe that to ignorance or stubbornness; I now can begin to accept it as rooted in different choices about how to love Israel. 

But even if our community organizations don’t change their overarching approach, each one should be fostering and allowing its members to bring this question – how do I love Israel? – forward. And they should not just allow but encourage there to be different answers. That means being open to hard questions, competing answers and perspectives, critical and even damning reports on what one perspective means. Having a speaker from an organization from a different viewpoint doesn’t mean you are suddenly subscribing to everything that organization believes, whether on the right or left. Allowing B’tselem to come speak about the facts and experiences that inform their research on the realities of the Occupation makes you no more a defender of their claims than inviting a settler to speak makes you responsible for violence committed in the West Bank. But you can’t really enter an honest debate without understanding where they come from.

This happens so rarely today. And I am not so naïve to think this is everything. We need much more than programs like this to heal the wounds in ourselves, in our communities, and certainly in Israel/Palestine. But when we start by validating our love, our pain, our questions, our dreams, and the uncomfortable and uncertain place in which to hold all of them, rather than limiting or marginalizing those we disagree with and whose worldviews make us uncomfortable, then we are at least more likely to heal our wounds and build stronger futures than we are by repeating talking points.

This program finally helped me learn how to define how I love Israel; may it be a way for all of us. 

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