I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in Israel. I know my first time was in 1972 when, after high school, I went on Young Judaea Year Course. To say it was a wild and crazy experience is the height of understatement [can an understatement have height?] My most recent time in Israel was last February with our 10th graders on the TBA annual Boston-Haifa excursion. Francie Weinberg (our fabulous youth educator) and I, along with our wrecking crew, bounced all over Israel and had a ball.
As for the intervening 44 years, I just don’t remember. That truth is not meant to be braggadocio. If anything, it is a sign of my increasingly unreliable memory… But I can say with authority that I was excited and very enthusiastic about every trip, whether with a large temple group, a gaggle of 10th graders, a sabbatical trip with my wife and a few kids in tow, CCAR conventions, and so forth.
The promise of the state of Israel resides deep in my heart. From my first nickel in the pushke (the blue and white tin for donations to the JNF) at my Uncle Izzy’s sandwich shop in East Pittsburgh, to Sunday School classes looking at pictures of kibbutzniks with rifles in one hand and shovels in the other, to the Six Day War, I was all in. My Jewish identity was, and is still, inextricably tied to a beautifully naïve, sincere Zionism. Like many baby boomers and older folks, the roots of my Zionism were unsullied by Israeli intransigence, triumphalism, and profoundly dysfunctional governance at every level.
But that was then, and this is now. It is this terrible yin/yang effect that so hurts my soul. All of those dreams of the mythic Israel are shattered. Read Shavit’s book, My Promised Land. Read David Grossman’s shattering novels or Amos Oz. Read Chemi Shalev or Brad Burston. You will discover that the dream known as Israel has become a much more complicated place when it comes to democracy and plurality and equality. The Israel of today is more than a great start-up nation – and less. The Israel of Bibi and the religious right and the security guards who strike Reform rabbis and men and women who dare to walk together with a Torah towards the Western Wall; the Israel that is deporting Africans who walked across the wilderness seeking asylum there. This is the Israel we did not hear about in temple growing up.
That’s a problem because the cognitive dissonance between the faded mythic representation of the Jewish state and the real-time nation is creating a generation of American Jews who feel misled, or worse by their Zionist elders. There are Millennials who loved Birthright, but still wonder why they were never told about the complicated stuff. They feel alienated by the things they read and see. Of course, there are lots of unflattering hyperboles and outright lies about Israel and the Jews. But the stuff we read is not all anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. To disregard it all is to live with the myth alone, and that isn’t sustainable. No nation, no people can live with a two-dimensional framework.
The Israel dream that sustains me on every trip is one I cannot forget. Whenever I get upset with some outrageous act or statement by a fascistic alt-right racist or a fawning politician, I reread the Bill of Rights. It reminds me that the USA, at its very core, is built, not on the hate and ignorance that spews out of certain places like toxic fumes from a sewer, but rather it is built on the ideals of freedom and justice for all. Whenever I read some rabid hate speech directed to my Reform community and me by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, or hear a press conference by a smug, triumphalist Israeli political hack, I reread the Declaration of Independence of Israel. The part I almost know now by heart is as follows:
The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
These words are the hope for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. These words define my definition of progressive Zionism. For the rest of my life, for as long as I have the true blessing of going to Israel, whether as a group leader or a group participant, I will visit the places and people of Israel who best exemplify this spirit of openness and freedom, of bridges and not walls. I will always honor the myths of Israel and how they inspired me. But I will not pretend that they are the foundation of Israel. The foundation is still being built.