Israel, Justice, Politics

Peace out, Jerusalem

After a week and a half, I’ve reached the end of my short time in Israel. My airport shuttle hurtles through Jerusalem neighborhoods, swooping up bleary-eyed 2 am passengers airport-bound. The hills are as black as the night sky, making the highway down from the Jerusalem hills look like a rollercoaster in outer space. House lights on opposite hills become arms of the Milky Way, orbiting past. By divine providence, the radio is playing “Streets of New York” by Alicia Keys and I can’t help but smile. Time to go home.
I am reinvigorated, recharged, galvanized anew. Unlike my first visit, I come away not with a feeling of embattled loneliness but crackling excitement. Being a great activist is greatly about being a great storyteller — and I come away with both inspirational yarns and disturbing anecdotes. Doing this work requires finding hope, however small, in the actions of tzadikim on the ground here. The prognosis is bad, the occupation’s steamroller crushes lives daily, and the politics are ugly. But aside from newfound urgency, I bring back with me new plans, projects and connections that will turn the tide.
Activists on the ground are so utterly bereft of hope. They see their country continue to appropriate Palestinian land day to day, settlements rise despite the freeze, and the Israeli public remain apathetic if not outright hostile. They know they are few in number. But what they can’t see from their individual trenches is the vast community doing this work together. The percolations of a “new left” bubble out and reach our ears in the Diaspora. They are coming out of dormancy, asserting themselves with vehemence despite their limited numbers. And they’re winning small but important victories.
Meanwhile, the increasing number of Diaspora Jews who’ve been to the territories and maybe even made a Palestinian friend slowly but surely reach important echelons of communal leadership at home. There is a sleeper effect, waiting. And the sudden advent of J Street has altered the status quo in Congress, still yet to actualize its full potential. And I know of similar J Street projects now budding across the furthest reaches of Diaspora Jewry.
And what the activists on the ground cannot see is themselves: fighting the most important battles, standing up for Jewish-Arab equality, flexing democratic muscle, refusing to lay down the cause even when it is unpopular. They do not see how inspiring they are. They do not know how crucial it is for us out here to see them fighting in there. When the country seems to be striving as hard as possible to scuttle our connection, what saves my belief this country is worth saving? Them. Their laughing in the face of adversity, their 14-hour work days fighting for someone else’s rights. Scrappy, sunburned, impulsive, single-minded.
Out here in Diaspora, we owe them every ounce of matched passion. If they can sacrifice so much, then so can we. The State of Israel is not core to my being nor to my Jewish identity, but its progressive leaders are exemplars of a vision I am chasing for all societies. Their example fuels me. Can we inspire them in turn? Can I? Do they need — as I do — reinforcement by example? It is only fair to give them back what they gave me in spades: a sense of fraternity for those of us who live and breathe this issue.
They are all saying these days that a change will not occur within Israeli society, but must come from another player. The status quo is rooted in all parties — America, Europe, Israel, Palestine — and if but one of them shifted, we could break free. American Jewish communal politics is key and symbolic communities abroad like JCall are important. Our role is crucial. After the crash of post-Oslo, we are rebuilding, reconvening, reviving. For what are you waiting for?
New purpose, new projects, new people. These are what I’m bringing home to New York City. I came here and rolled up my sleeves, and as I return home, those sleeves are still up. In more ways that one, it’s time to get back to work.
Peace out, Jerusalem.
(Cross-posted from Judaism Without Borders.)

21 thoughts on “Peace out, Jerusalem

  1. Beautiful and inspiring words.
    One thing saddens and troubles me however. It is when you say, “The State of Israel is not core to my being nor to my Jewish identity”. I think I understand why you say it, I just wish it wasn’t the case for you and for many, many other Jews in Diaspora. So the only thing I would add to your words is that my hope is that this kind of activism continues to be strengthened by those who do see Israel as core to their being and Jewish identity. And that hopefully people won’t be pushed to have to choose between their humanity and their Jewishness. It’s not a fair choice.

  2. uzi, why? Why must Israel be central to my identity? The fact that Israel is so central to lots of Jews doesn’t mean it has to be central to all of us. I for one, tend to latch onto the ethical teachings of our tradition. Ritual and ethics are my central Jewish identity.

  3. @David, If I understand it correctly Uzi is experiencing an amazing sense of being Jewish in Israel. A sense of completeness, so to speak. It is effortless, genuine and an integration that surpasses any logic. This does not mean you are not aware of the need for tikun olam but it compels one to act in a place of great strength and wholeness. In Israel one has the ability to live in the tradition. It is all around you in the culture itself and the people you are living with constantly.

  4. not exactly steve, although I am living in Israel and there is something to your comment.
    David, I believe that Jews must have some kind of relationship to the State of Israel and we all must grapple with what Israel means to us. I do not mean to put down other avenues of connection to our rich tradition but I do believe Israel is one of the central projects of the Jewish people in our time. I would also go as far to say that the project of the State of Israel is one of the most significant in Jewish history and certainly the 20th century. I do not believe that it should be the only way that Jews connect to each other and to our tradition but I do think that all Jews must be a part of this project in some way.
    Just my opinion.

  5. @Uzi; I wonder if it would help for people to make a distinction between the State of Israel, the Land of Israel and the People of ISrael.
    I suspect that separating those things out might allow people to say – I have a relationship with some, but not all, of those- which might, in the end, bind us back together much more strongly.

  6. @KRG
    My hope is that Jews will strive to have relationships will all three of those things. Moreover, I find that they are not exactly separate spheres nor mutually exclusive concepts. A good suggestion though.

  7. To be fair, a connection to Israel I definitely have, but it’s not “central” to my Jewishness. My Jewishness drives me to address the issues of statehood and minority rights there, not the other way around. Judaism, Jewishness and Jews are just so much bigger than a particular plot of land, sub-set of our people, or one among many of our institutions.

  8. The separation between the land, people and state is good. I love most of the People of Israel. I like the Land of Israel. And I’m frustrated with the State of Israel. How’s that?
    But when all is said and done, I believe that the People of Israel became who we are now when most of us were far away from the Land of Israel. I’m ok with that and I’m far more intrigued by and feel a deeper connection with oddball diaspora communities than I do with Israel.

  9. I hear what y’all are saying and if I am hearing correctly, The State of Israel in some way is part of your Jewish identity. If that’s the case then keep on keepin on.
    I do take issue however with Jews around the world for whom the State of Israel is not part of their Jewish identity. Not because I think it is integral to being Jewish but because I feel that it is the most significant Jewish project of our times. I want Jews to articulate what it means to them from a place of knowledge and experience of the State. And I don’t mean Birthright, I mean significant engagement with the issues that arise in the State of Israel and their impacts on world Jewry and the world. Differecnt conclusions will be reached to be sure, but it’s the process that is most important to me not the product. I think, maybe I’m wrong, that the more we continue to engage the better the Jewish world will be.

  10. Let me clear about what it means for me that the State is part of my identity: I spent four months there in high school and have no desire to visit again. It’s a part of my identity, but I’m angry at it and, aside from snide tweets and the like, I’m not really engaging with it.
    And I don’t think building a state for the sake of building a state is a great project. Which is not to say that I don’t think there’s any reason for Israel, but that it’s so often put forth as something that is its own rationale that I’m just sick of it. That’s meaningless.

  11. “I’m ok with that and I’m far more intrigued by and feel a deeper connection with oddball diaspora communities than I do with Israel.”
    are israeli jews the jocks and the diaspora the geeks?

  12. @DAMW,
    I appreciate that you feel that way. Sincerely. The State of Israel makes me angry too sometimes (Lord knows it did this week). It makes me sad that the many ways in which Israel alienates and angers diaspora Jews are taken as opportunities to disengage.
    I agree that state building just for the sake of it is meaningless and that the State of Israel has lost her way in becoming the kind of nation state that the world has never seen before. She will never achieve all that we expect of her and want from her if we disengage.
    To a large extent Israel/Zionist education (in diaspora and Israel btw) as a whole needs to be re-imagined in a way that responds in deep and meaningful ways to the question of what the State of Israel means and could mean. And I don’t just mean Or LaGoyim and all of that jazz. I mean something more, something deeper, rooted in the texts of our tradition both ancient and modern. This will help give contour, nuance and depth to the conversation so that Israel education goes beyond building the country out of ice cream and felafel.
    Whether Israel is achieving that vision is a different and important question but should never be an excuse to not be involved. The opposite in fact, we should push harder to reengage in spite of Israel’s shortcomings.

  13. @Oren, that wasn’t my point, though it often feels that way. What I meant by oddball was that I love discovering a Jewish community somewhere that I didn’t know there was one or somewhere that I had never thought about having one before.
    @uzi, so lets see some examples. “She will never achieve all that we expect of her.” What do we expect of her? “I mean something more, something deeper, rooted in the texts of our tradition.” That sounds great, and I say that with no sarcasm in my typing. It really sounds great. I’m just tired of hearing that it could be “something” from people who won’t tell me what that something could be.

  14. David,
    That is our challenge. That is one of my personal challenges/opportunities as a Jewish educator. In some Israel education circles there are people trying to have this conversation at places like Makom and the Hartman Institute for example. This kind of change will probably take a little while.
    What do we expect and what could Israel be? A lot. For one thing I think we need to abandon the notion that Israel is to be a nation like all the other nations. Secondly we have to understand the advent of Zionism in the proper context of 19th century European nationalism. Third, we must admit and acknowledge how the Shoah impacted Zionist thought. And lastly, it is important to realize what is out 21st century context so that we can properly make meaning out of the State of Israel.
    Here is one idea in brief that I find compelling. Zionism in many ways is messianic idea. However if the messianic age is upon us that also means the end of days, the end of history, the end of everything really. What if the Jewish messianic idea is built upon the premise that we should be constantly in a state of waiting? And I mean waiting in the sense of constantly trying to improve one’s self and one’s community to hasten the coming of mashiach. All the while being fully cognizant that we don’t really want to achieve that. Now put the State of Israel in to that frame and you get a country that has a utopian vision ahead of it but realizes that it’s achievment is impossible. Nonetheless it strives continuously to get there. It’s much more complex than that but there’s one idea in broad strokes.
    And just so you know, I have the whole concept of mashiach and a messianic age. But I found this to be a compelling frame to help construct meaning about what the State of Israel (might) means.

  15. when I’m not out riding my cannondale caad9 bicycle, i’m usually driving a car. and even though that car runs on gasoline, saudi arabia is not central to my identity.
    however, if it wasn’t for saudi arabia (or any oil exporting nation), i certainly would not be able to drive my car, or perhaps i could but the cost of gas would be so high that it would be …difficult.
    israel is alot like saudi arabia, except instead of drilling into ancient reserves of fossil fuels and exporting energy all over the world, israel drills into an ancient hebrew psyche and exports light to all the jewish communities of the world.

  16. Oren, that’s pretty hard to quantize. I’ll agree with you 100% the day Israel and the Israelis start sending money and funding diaspora communities instead of the other way around. As it is now, (some) Jewish communities of the world are keeping the lights on for Israel, not the other way around.

  17. Seriously? KFJ, you just spent time in Israel and that’s how you feel? Wilensky never wants to go back to Israel? (FYI — there are plenty of “oddball” communities in Israel, if you bother to look. But I’m sure you should stick with the opinion you formulated as a teenager, since we all know teenagers are fonts of wisdom and insight.) I feel very sad for both of you.
    Oren hit the nail on the head — “Israel drills into an ancient hebrew psyche and exports light to all the Jewish communities of the world.” Beautifully said.

  18. very clever, i saw what you did there, with the “light”, it was funny and i laughed.
    of course, I’m not talking about money. saudi arabia doesn’t export money, they export energy. we pay them for energy so we can drive our cars.
    now back to the argument. maybe the jewish diaspora is paying israel for energy, and without it, we could perhaps see the same fate as say, the saudi arabian jews of al-ha’il.

  19. fan, I don’t think I said never. There may be a time when I want to go back. I’m willing to admit that things change and my opinion may change. But for now, I’m content to travel to new places and meet new communities rather than going back somewhere I’ve been before.
    I’m also 21, so I’m not too far removed from my high school opinions. But I also didn’t say that was my high school opinion. When I first left after that semester, all I wanted to do was go back, but things change.

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