American Jews May Begin to “Spiritually Distance” from Israel After Annexation. Is the Community Prepared to Reopen in New Ways?
(Editor’s Note: this is an extended and adapted version of a piece that appeared in The Forward here).
The polarization, toxicity, fear, and inertia around Israel engagement within the American Jewish community has led to a form of social distancing — spiritual distancing, if you will — from Israel. Unless the community’s establishment organizations use the inspiration of coronavirus “reopening” and take a different tack following annexation of parts of the West Bank, the damage may be permanent. Suggestions for some basic, and very doable, next steps come at the end.
I recently participated in a facilitated conversation around Israel through Resetting the Table and was grouped together with 5 very thoughtful young Jews, all in their early-mid 20s, from a variety of backgrounds, ideologies, and denominations. As the conversation progressed, the facilitator pulled out the one word that marked the feeling that came through to her from my fellow participants:
It was stunning to hear the pain, fear, and confusion that marks how young Jews engage with Israel. Or try to. And how hard it is for them to find a place to fit because of the toxicity and rancor of nearly any discussion about Israel. None of these 5 could see a place for themselves in the American Jewish community’s debate about or connection with Israel.
To use a more present metaphor, they were practicing a form of, let’s call it, “spiritual distancing” from Israel. Or, more specifically, from the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel.
I am now coming back to this because the American Jewish community does not appear to have a plan for how to “reopen” into a world in which Israel is, at least in part, an apartheid state, which could officially and formally begin as early as July 1. And in such a world, many more of us will need to deal with this shame and the consideration of both if and how we create our own spiritual distance from Israel unless our community acts. [NOTE: I know the word “apartheid” alone may cause some readers to stop in anger or protest, but I do not use the term lightly; it is critical that we all be willing to stay with uncomfortable language, lest we simply continue to recreate the conditions and silos that led to where we are today and not recognize that annexation creates a very different situation than any before.]
Personally, I have written about my own pain with respect to trying to engage on Israel from an anti-Occupation perspective for the last 23 years, but I have never felt shame, per se, or that I wanted to walk away. But I am conscious that I am starting to feel that way more and more as annexation looms, both as I hear the almost triumphant tone from the right, and as I continue to respect but honestly grow tired of the responses from the organizations I have long worked with and supported on the left.
So, just as we hear consistently about how the post-coronavirus world must be different and must break with previous social, economic, and political structures and norms that have led to any number of inequalities and bad outcomes in our society, as well as the apathy and stasis from so many in how we address those inequalities, so too does the American Jewish community need to break with its traditional structures, approaches, and biases. This break may well be needed in many areas and on a range of critical issues, but I see it most urgently with respect to how our community engages about and deals with Israel.
It is urgent for two reasons (Each of these reasons could be an essay in itself and is itself complicated by so many factors, from the rise of anti-Semitism to the decline of democratic norms in Israel to the ongoing political paralysis in Palestine to the myriad impacts of the Trump Administration, no matter how you view its role and approach. But I’ll let others get into those nuances):
1 — Our community is polarized and divided into silos and echo chambers that do not allow for any level of meaningful, honest, or prolonged discussion across perspectives or experiences. Like with so many issues in the American political arena, organizations on both the right and left work constantly to portray themselves as the true standard-bearers, in this case of who is really “pro-Israel,” and rarely allow for admissions of failure. Larger synagogues, community centers, or day schools seeking to have a speaker from the left or to visit the West Bank during a trip to Israel will consistently say that they simply cannot do so because of fear of funding and other forms of public and private backlash. Similarly, voices from the right are often maligned so vehemently by those on the left that many may legitimately wonder whether the objections come from a place of wanting Israel to exist at all. The recent controversy over the nomination to head the Conference of Presidents only highlights the challenges this divide causes for all of us.
2 — The political situation in Israel/Palestine is about to cross a line that makes any reliance on the majority’s status quo opinion, which has consistently supported a two-state solution but also defers to the Israeli government almost entirely on how that happens, untenable.
Since the decline of the Oslo peace process and the second Intifada, which led to the construction of the Separation Wall and many other changes in the West Bank as well as a blockade of Gaza following the election of Hamas, those who oppose the Occupation and Israel’s overall policy approach have warned about one grave moment after another.
To a large extent, these warnings have been both right and wrong. Right in that they have, in fact, led to further degradation of the chances for peace, among many other things, but wrong in that they have not meaningfully changed the way most American Jews approach the conflict or what they think they can or should do about it.
But with annexation will indeed come the final straw, as Israel will begin to practice apartheid formally, i.e., where it will have territory in which it is not just administering occupied land, but fully annexing and thus controlling as its own territory in which different groups of people have different levels of rights and privileges, including where they can live, work, whether they can vote, etc. based solely on their identities, and with the ultimate goal of segregation rather than integration.
Although that has de facto been the case for many years under Occupation, it has generally come with the prospect of change through negotiation and compromise. Annexation ends that entirely and forces a confrontation with a reality that many American Jews will simply not realize, understand, or know how to deal with.
In the end, although I am personally on the left and opposed to this shift based on two decades of experience and engagement, I do understand the idea that those on the right may find this act justified and necessary. And I think that an honest debate on this is important to be had in our community.
The point here is not that many American Jews will disagree with this policy shift as well, which is the case if you acknowledge the polling data, but that many do not necessarily understand why, how we got here, what it really means on the ground for Palestinians and Israelis, or what alternatives exist. And the current structure of our community’s approach to Israel will not allow them to do so now because it does not allow space for meaningful discussion without over-simplified talking points, intense volume and, at times, outright vitriol.
So, as someone who does care deeply for Israel but is now feeling my own sense of distance, what is most urgent for me then is simply this — we face a situation that feels like a discussion about the coronavirus response. That is, a divided community at an organizational level must deal with a situation unlike any it has had to face before but is not currently structured or oriented to meet such a challenge. But, if it fails to rise to this challenge, although individual American Jews in our community won’t die, their current or future connections to Israel may wither through a form of spiritual distancing. That is, they will find themselves feeling a sense of personal and/or communal shame, like those in my dialogue group, and simply walk away.
This, to me, is a far more urgent and real concern than, say, whether more American Jews will turn to support of the BDS movement, which has been the rallying cry and organizing focus of most of the community for the last many years.
Thus it is time to break with old habits and try new approaches inspired by the way we are trying to “reopen” society after quarantine. In the end, the ideas below may feel simplistic, but they are designed to prompt conversation and creativity. Trying the steps below in a remote/Zoom context could actually make this easier and better, as concerns about physical confrontation, yelling, and financial costs can all be significantly mitigated.
These are then a few suggestions that I, as an active community member, on both Israel issues and in my synagogue and community, offer to the professionals running our Jewish communal institutions to stave off further spiritual distancing:
1 — Federations, synagogues, Hillels, and community centers should be organizing events now with credible experts and speakers from across the political divide, bringing people together that they absolutely would have not been willing to before. Whether Breaking the Silence or a group that supports settlers, these formats may limit direct connection but they can also break pre-existing barriers. All of these organizations should be looking to entities like Resetting the Table for help and important pieces like “The Forbidden Conversation” for programming.
2 — Day schools, summer camps, and youth-focused organizations must be willing to move beyond the simplistic approaches to Israel being taught by many and, as with the above, be willing to present students with content and speakers who come from different backgrounds and perspectives than have been included before. This will not only make the material more interesting and engaging — an end in its own right pedagogically — but prepare students better for what they may experience on campus and beyond. Even as in-person summer camps start to be canceled, these kinds of programs are possible and would, I imagine, be very important and welcome.
3 — American Jewish organizations with a focus on Israel should break down their existing websites and programs to present content from different perspectives, even opposing ones, and take on difficult issues, including where they recognize they may have been wrong in the past. For example, AIPAC should be willing to have material on its website about the legitimate concerns related to annexation and apartheid, and J Street should more honestly respond to critiques from the right about whether its approach to Israel could leave the country at greater risk.
4 — All of the above should be creating curated lists of books, movies, podcasts, magazines, and other materials that present a wide array of perspectives so American Jews know where to turn to begin a learning process that feels honest and meaningful.
Annexation and apartheid will make continued engagement with Israel very difficult, and it is time for our community’s institutions to step up and make sure that those like me or, perhaps even worse, the 20-somethings I dialogued with and the generation(s) behind them, do not simply leave Israel and this community behind and instead choose to stay at a “spiritual distance.”