“I would rather stand up on the bimah on Yom Kippur, eat a bacon sandwich, and declare that I do not believe in God, than criticize Israel from the pulpit.” Thus confided a rabbi to me in a recent conversation that mirrored the results of the survey just released by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
It’s deeply disturbing that one third of American rabbis share this fear of publicly criticizing Israel. Rabbis are meant to be our communal leaders, those who model for us, their congregants, the Jewish dispositions, patterns of behavior, and cultural norms that they would wish us to value. Being able to freely express criticism of Israel is not just about freedom of speech; it’s about giving voice to relationships with Israel that are complex and nuanced, which doesn’t mean less legitimate or less connected to Israel. It’s also about understanding that critical thinking is a mark of an educated person. The rabbis in this survey are deeply committed to Israel, and want to be allowed to criticize Israel without that basic core commitment being called into question. If they don’t feel comfortable doing that, then how can we expect other American Jews to do so?
In my recently published book, “Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism,” I set out what it would mean to develop an educational discourse that would not only allow but encourage the kind of committed-but-critical approach that these rabbis are seeking. One of my central arguments is that we must stop seeing Israel education as an enterprise that is intended solely to affect American Jews’ identities, and instead see it as a two-way, dialogical, relational enterprise in which American Jews should seek both to be influenced and to influence. As I write in my book:
“American Jews need to be exposed to the remarkable, inspiring experience of Israeli Jewish life as public, lived, sovereign space; to the vibrancy of Israeli ethnic-religious-cultural creativity; and to a society whose foundational civic narratives are rooted in Jewish texts and language. American Judaism is the poorer for the lack of such exposure.
“But Israeli Jews also have much to learn from American Jews. Israeli Jews need to be exposed to the remarkable, inspiring experience of American Judaism as an open, pluralist way of life, which can speak to different people in different ways; to the vibrancy of the diversity of American Jewish experiences of personal spiritual meaning; and to a religious community that has succeeded in having Jewish messages inspire and infuse hundreds of thousands of non-Jews. Israeli Judaism is the poorer for the lack of such exposure.
“‘Influence and be influenced’ must be the new catchphrase of dialogical liberal Zionist Israel engagement.”
Once you develop a conceptual understanding of Israel engagement as a dialogical, two-way street, then criticism of Israel becomes not just tolerable, but in fact a marker of a robust, dynamic, vibrant relationship with Israel. Critique becomes an educational goal in and of itself.
This approach to Israel education and engagement can be liberating to rabbis, Jewish educators, and indeed all American Jews who want to express their commitment to Israel but don’t feel comfortable remaining silent about Israel’s faults. These faults might include its attitude in peace talks with the Palestinians (from either side of the political spectrum), its policy toward African refugees, its position on non-Orthodox conversions and marriages, or any number of other issues. If we silence American Jews’ legitimate concerns about Israel’s failings, it’s likely that in the long run they will cease to care about Israel qua Israel. Asking American Jews to develop passionate, angry, caring critique about Israel is an educational mode that is likely to increase connection.
As the authors of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs report write, “A stifled debate means a less healthy discourse and missed educational opportunities.” This is true, but it’s only one step toward the answer. We need to do some serious educational thinking about what this new discourse on Israel might look like, and how we educate both young people and adults toward it. Instead of treading on eggshells when we speak about our disagreements with Israel, we need instead to see debate about it as machloket l’shem shamayim – an argument for the sake of heaven. We know how to apply that phrase to many aspects of our Jewish lives and identities: it’s time we applied it to Israel education too.