Engaging questions about Israel

Engaging questions about Israel

At the end of the screening of “Precious Life,” the last film of this year’s Israel Film and Culture Festival (organized by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Israel Programs Center), I was approached by a local resident. She explained that shlichim (emissaries from Israel) she knew, growing up in a Zionist youth movement in the 1970s, were very different from shlichim today. Then their message was always about a strong Israel uniting diaspora Jews in unequivocal support of Israel. Today, shlichim come to world Jewish communities and present different aspects and faces of Israel; they challenge fellow Jews by asking difficult questions to engage them in a conversation about the Jewish state.

The films in the annual Israel Film Festival were a vehicle to take up this conversation about the relationship between our community (northern New Jersey/North America) and Israel. In particular, two of the festival’s films highlight the complexities of the Jewish state.

The first film, “Precious Life,” is a documentary about a Palestinian child with a rare genetic disease, who arrives at the Tel HaShomer Medical Center for treatment but without the funds to pay for a needed bone marrow transplant. The primary doctor asks Shlomi Eldar, Israel’s Channel 10 Arab Affairs reporter and the film’s director, for help finding a donor. “A story of a possible friendship in an impossible reality,” as the film has been described, develops. The second film, “Ajami,” is a powerful crime drama set in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, a melting pot of cultures and conflicting views between Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

The question being raised by this local community resident and one that has been a focus throughout the Jewish world – and of my shlichut – is “What is or should be the relationship between world Jewry and Israel?”

Israel is no longer a fledging state with poor infrastructure and services. Indeed, with the next and 63rd Israel Independence day less than a month away, many people, Israelis included, do not remember a time when there wasn’t a modern state. Further, we often hear about Israel as a “start-up nation,” with a flourishing economy and how it recently became the 33rd member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Still, huge economic gaps exist in Israel; there are tensions between the religious and secular and a fragmented election system and therefore a fragile government system based on coalition politics. Additionally, and certainly not last on this list, there are many seemingly intractable, and increasingly worrying, security issues. (A shaliach 20 years ago would certainly not have written these last few sentences.)

Eldar, the director of “Precious Life,” was the guest speaker at this past Sunday’s showing of his documentary. He said that it is his “personal commentary on Israeli society,” and that it is his and every filmmaker’s prerogative to tell their own Israel story. Israel, a democracy, encourages such social comment through all media including film.

Not only did this year’s festival question Jewish/Arab relationships in Israel, but also feelings about our past. “The Matchmaker,” a fictional story set in Haifa about a marriage broker and a Holocaust survivor immediately after the Six Day War, asks the audience to remember its connection to the Shoah at a time when memories are fading. “I Was There in Color” documents the establishment of the State of Israel in color for almost the first time – previously we had mainly black-and-white photos of this period. This documentary is a nostalgic, even romantic, glance at the early days of the Jewish state. It shows a clear – and perhaps simpler – perception of what we then saw in black and white. Does the addition of color make this look back more layered and complicated? And what about now?

There are no easy answers. Israel is a beautiful but complex place. On the one hand, we want to love the Jewish homeland unconditionally. On the other hand, there are tensions and difficulties in defining this relationship. In the past, it never was a viable option to remain a “good” Jew in North America and openly criticize Israel.

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s education academy, Makom, invites world Jewry to “hug and wrestle” with Israel as a possible solution. Through the film festival, the Israel Programs Center has invited our local Jewish community to engage with Israel through culture and film. These are legitimate ways to praise or express disapproval about Israel. As important as it is to define the world Jewry/Israel relationship, it is just as important to have the conversation. The narrative’s content is important, complex, and often infuriating. I don’t imagine that many people’s worldviews will be changed by hugging, wrestling, or engaging with Israel. But the fact that there are efforts to embrace and tackle these questions means that the conversation is developing.

Let’s not leave it there but begin our own local narrative.

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