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It's Time to Start Talking About Israel

There was certainly no shortage of news to discuss this summer. Between ISIS, the Ebola outbreak, the downed Malaysian plane in Ukraine, the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the tragic death of Robin Williams, the news seemed to never stop coming. One story that captured a large portion of mainstream media attention as well as the consciousness of our Jewish community was obviously the situation in Israel and Gaza. I am certain that I do not need to rehash the story for my readers. Many of us were glued to social media and Israeli news sites as the hunt continued for the three kidnapped teenagers, as they were subsequently buried after their horrific murder, as Mohammed Abu Khdeir was also brutally murdered by fellow Israelis, as Hamas bombarded Israel with rockets, and as Israel attacked Gaza in the air and on the ground. These events gave rise to a host of questions about the Jewish community’s relationship with Zionism and Israeli policy, some old, but some of these questions very new. The nature of Zionism is fundamentally changing, and as future leaders of the Jewish community it is our responsibility to open up honest and productive conversations about what Zionism means in 2014.

Every generation has [at least] one big issue that defines its concerns. When we look back at our parents’ generation, for example, much of their concern was spent evaluating gender roles and feminism. Many Jewish leaders today believe that Israel and Zionism will be the defining issue for our generation. Whereas unquestioning support for Israel and its policies used to be a given amongst Jews of all denominations, many young Jews now have questions about what it means to be a Zionist.

A lot has changed since the miracles of the Six Day War and Entebbe. Israel is no longer the little nation that could. In the early days, Israel defied all odds in defeating armies much larger and better equipped than theirs and in building a flourishing nation out of practically nothing. Almost all Jews and a majority of the Western world cheered Israel on as it developed into a strong and prosperous nation.

And then things changed. First, the Yom Kippur War shocked Israel. Israel then invaded Lebanon in what quickly turned into a bloody war with no clear victor and 20 year long occupation of Southern Lebanon. The fighting came to the homefront as Arafat’s PLO instilled terror into the lives of Israeli citizens riding buses and eating pizza. Israel had no good answers to these issues; they could not just carpet bomb the PLO as they had done to Egypt's air force in 1967. By the turn of the century it was clear that Israel’s military might could not solve every issue.


And then public opinion began to turn against Israel. The settlement of the West Bank and Gaza became a scab in Israel’s side that has continued growing, right up until today. Leaders of the country that was established in the wake of the Holocaust were accused of war crimes and of perpetuating a seemingly endless occupation of Palestinian land. While Israelis and Palestinians used to seamlessly travel back and forth between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, relentless terrorism led to the Israeli government building a security fence, formally separating Israelis and Palestinians, for better and for worse. While terrorism is down, studies show that, on both sides, racism is at an all time high.

Our generation grew up in the wake of these developments. Israel’s military power is no longer sufficient. The military did not put a stop to suicide bombs or Hamas rockets (they physically could, but morally and politically cannot). Existential threats to Israel now come from politics and demographics, not fanatical, fascist Arab states, making dealing with these threats much harder to navigate. Many of us, despite having spent significant time in Israel, never met a Palestinian. We are used to reading in the media about accusations of Israeli immorality on the battlefield, a failed peace process, and a dangerous (from a political point of view), widely condemned occupation. We know that in parts of Europe, Israel is a hated pariah, and that some of this sentiment has brought out anti-Semitism. In all of these ways, our Zionist experience is fundamentally different than that of our parents.

The new Zionist reality has shaken up the Jewish world. Scholars identify four camps of young Jews today: The first two groups are hard to have a conversation with, as they are often not willing to listen to the other side. These are the old-school Zionists, for whom Israel can do no wrong and who still see Israel as a lone David in a world of anti-Semitic Goliaths; and the post-Zionists (led by Peter Beinart), critical of Israel’s every move for whom Israel can do no right and for whom Israel’s very existence is offensive. The vast majority of Jews, however, fall somewhere in the middle. There are those that are undoubtedly committed to supporting Israel, but have some serious questions about certain Israeli policies (full disclosure: this is where this author stands); and there are those who genuinely want to commit their support to Israel, but are embarrassed by Israel’s actions and have trouble understanding how Israel and Zionism fits in with the liberal values of America today. It is with these latter two groups that a conversation must occur. As times have changed, our generation is going to be the ones to reclaim and reinvent the Zionist narrative.

I am urging students to get together, either formally or impromptu, in dorm rooms, apartments, classrooms, the library, and the Beit Midrash to discuss these issues. Much discussion has occurred on social media, which is a terrible place for these serious conversations. It is too quick and too impersonal, not allowing for well thought out ideas, just yelling where people often talk at each other, not to each other.

It is beyond crucial that these discussions remain respectful, open, and non-judgmental, due to the sensitive and emotional nature of this topic. I have serious questions and concerns, and I doubt I am alone. Some may be deeply troubled by the high civilian death toll in Gaza. Some may be deeply troubled by the anti-Semitism in Europe spurred by this war. Whatever the question is, it must be heard and discussed. Our conversations must be no-holds-barred and must not become echo chambers. We cannot just speak to people with whom we already agree. I also believe it is more productive to address emotions and thoughts than technicalities of specific policies. Importantly, ad hominem attacks and labeling must be avoided at all costs. Accusing someone of disloyalty, betrayal to the community, feeding anti-Semitism, or, on the other side, racism and tribalism, does not quell their questions but rather makes those questions stronger.

Finally, we must make no assumptions. We must be ready to consider and reconsider a cornucopia of different ideas. We must be open, not defensive. We must think for ourselves, not repeat the talking points of others. And mostly importantly we must not make assumptions about what our friends, teachers, and students might think, avoiding statements that insinuate that everyone in present company supports or opposes x and y. When we voice an opinion, we speak for ourselves, in first person (“I”, not “we”). I think it would be great for rabbis and professors to also be a part of these conversations. That being said, they must be the most cautious, as they do yield power and influence. A Sichat Mussar or Political Science class cannot turn into a lecturer’s diatribe in favor of one position; as students we have a right to have open and non-judgmental conversations in our halls.

Israel in 2014 is not the same Israel we were taught about in elementary school when we watched Operation Thunderbolt, the movie about the miraculous Entebbe raid. The world sees Israel differently, Israel sees Israel differently, Jews see Israel differently, and our generation sees Israel differently. I have confidence that these conversations can occur in a productive and respectful manner on campus. It is time for us to stop sharing the articles we either agree with or vehemently oppose on Facebook, and time for us to gather, in small yet diverse groups, with friends, teachers, and students, and try to process all that has occurred this summer. I invite you to take my hand and join me on this unpredictable and scary yet ever so important journey.