American Jews and Israel: what now?


I used to irritate my Jewish educator friends by contending that the experience of attending Hebrew school, either on the weekend or in the afternoon hours after the “regular” school day, alienated more kids than it inspired. In my day, it was four afternoons a week plus Sunday mornings, in an era still free of soccer practices and overprogrammed schedules typical of middle-class Jewish life. I was a good boy and thrived on the additional time in an arena in which I was guaranteed success. For me, the whole experience worked as intended, with lots of support from home. Not so much for my classmates who were pretty much done with Judaism after their bar mitzvahs.

My contention was that there was more mileage in applying the resources that went into this synagogue-based Jewish education if we invested them instead in Jewish summer camps and trips to Israel, the kind of immersive experiences that had more sticking power than whatever form of Hebrew school was on offer. Many of the Jewish adults I know who are actively involved in communal Jewish life have had either or both the summer camp or the Israel trip experience. You may be familiar with a program called Birthright Israel, the poster child for this model which targets young Jews who have had limited exposure to Jewish education in general and Israel in particular. Unfortunately, it subsidizes free trips to Israel which tend to downplay the complexities of the occupation and Palestinian rights. More and more young Jews are drawn these days to a more complex narrative about Israel.

My growing up years corresponded to the period of the creation of the Jewish state and the afterglow that followed. I participated in a synagogue-based youth group whose programing emphasized the miracle of the re-birth. I attended several brief end-of-summer sessions of the camp sponsored by my youth group, worked there one summer as a counselor, and then was selected to participate in a year-long program in Israel, designed to prepare me to be a group leader on my return. No matter how clouded these experiences are by current events, I cherish them as critical elements in the shaping of my identity.

What I’m about to say will appear to be the result of the current war, but in fact it wasin the making for a long time before that. Over the years, the idealized version of Israel was tarnished by my growing awareness of the cost of the fulfillment of the dream of a Jewish state to the existing Palestinian/Arab population. There was a reason why what we called independence they called Naqba, catastrophe. Even the early Zionist founders were all too aware that they were not dealing with an empty country. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was saying as early as 1920, “There is a gulf, and nothing can fill this gulf…We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs want this country to be theirs.”

The aftermath of the ’67 War and Israel’s new role as an occupying power played a major role in my recognition of the complexity of the miracle of Israel’s creation and the need for either a shared state, two states, or a combination of the two. The war has only brought that awareness into high relief. The idea of a Jewish state with a fascist government responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children, regardless of the horrendous provocation by Hamas, can no longer be remedied by a dose of summer camp or a trip to Israel.

There is a tradition in some Jewish communities of arranging such a trip for a child or grandchild who has celebrated their bar or bat mitzvah. We’re taking our granddaughter to London instead. Despite the fact that there are many dedicated people in Israel who are fighting the good fight against the dark turn the country has taken, there is a drift to the right and a hardening of hearts. This is true not just toward the death of so many innocents in Gaza, but in the West Bank, where the long history ofoppression of Palestinians has now devolved into unfettered settler lawlessness. That’s not an experience I wish to share with my granddaughter.

Nonetheless I am not sympathetic to the views of many on the left that Israel has no right to exist. Whatever your beliefs are about how the country came to be and at what expense, the reality is that there are two peoples neither of whom will disappear, who have to find a way to recognize each other’s claims to the land. Until there are moves in that direction, a trip to Israel for granddaughter Dalia would not be a source of inspiration.

This is the season when parents are enrolling their children in summer camp. I have been moved by the conflicts faced by a friend whose own identity as a Jew was shaped by her Jewish camp experience. She is now in the process of enrolling her own children in that same camp but is fearful about the messages about Israel to which they will be exposed, messages that do not acknowledge the responsibility of Israel for the deadly injustices it has perpetrated and their violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. She worries about the uninflected “Stand with Israel” position that pervades much of Jewish institutional life. She has bravely voiced her concerns to the camp leadership and has won some small concessions, but summer camp as the engine for shaping Jewish identity is no longer the simple option it has been in the past.

So, what’s left? I don’t have a clear answer. There is a movement for centering a kind of “diasporic” Judaism in which Israel plays little or no part, except to acknowledge that that country contains the largest concentration of fellow Jews. Perhaps the way forward will be clearer when we see the terms on which this war ends, but there’s a sea change afoot that will lead us to look back on this historical moment as dramatic an inflection point as the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of our long exile.

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Marv Hoffman

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