Israel seems to be on everyone’s mind right now.
We heard that clearly in the presidential debates. But dig just a bit below the surface, below the fireworks and bellowing smoke of presidential politics, and you learn that younger Jews increasingly care less about the Jewish state.
That’s why the Hartman program, iEngage, is trying to advance Americans’ understanding of the country, on the theory that you can more truly love what you more fully understand.
Many Jewish institutions across the area are using the iEngage program, which is funded by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and some are adding their own speakers and programs to it. That group includes Temple Emanu-El of Closter, which will host two speakers in residence over the next two Shabbatot, among many other people and programs.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a well-known and highly accomplished journalist, writer, and speaker who made aliyah about 30 years ago, also is a senior scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He will be scholar-in-residence this Shabbat, and he will talk, he said, about the current crisis in Israel. That, he pointed out in a phone interview, is a title that would always apply to Israel, now matter what the crisis might be.
The crisis now, though, he said, is dire.
“We’re really at an extraordinary moment,” he said. “On the one hand, the external threats haven’t been as acute as they are now at any time since 1967. Not even in 1973,” which was the year of the Yom Kippur War. That, he said, is because the war started and ended quickly. The situation today – he’s talking about Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, “and everything else we’re facing” – has built up over many years.
On the other hand, he continued, “many Israelis’ attention is on internal issues.
“That’s counterintuitive. We’ve always deferred dealing with domestic issues because of what we call hamatzav – the situation – but now the external situation is really acute, and Israelis are focused elsewhere. That may be a useful survival technique, or maybe there’s an element of denial about it.”
Israel’s elections are scheduled for early in 2013 – its parliamentary system demands that dates be penciled rather than chiseled onto calendars – and the question of the price of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s genuinely achieved stability will be raised, Halevi said. “On Israeli radio these days, the interesting thing is that the left-winger will begin by saying that there is no denying the fact that as the region is roiling and the world economy is shaking, Natanyahu has brought stability. That’s from the left! On the right, you hear that Israelis are hurting and people are wondering about the future.”
Halevi worries that “there is an emerging liberal narrative of Israel that is partly true, and because it’s partly true it’s fundamentally distorted. There are ugly snapshots that are indicative of certain trends in Israel” – here, he was talking specifically about the arrest of the Women of the Wall’s leader, Anat Hoffman, for saying the Sh’ma out loud in the women’s section of the Kotel – “but if those become the totality of how liberal Jews think of Israel, then it will be as distorting as your parents’ view of Israel as being Ari Ben-Canaan.” (Ari Ben-Canaan was the hero of Leon Uris’s novel “Exodus”; he was as lion-hearted as his first name demanded, and because he was played by Paul Newman in the movie, his name evokes visions of lean, blond, blue-eyed wiry glamor.)
“American Jews finally began to look at Israel more closely, which is something that should have happened years ago,” Halevi said. “But the lens they’re using is so narrow, and in some senses so self-referential, that liberal American Jews will end up making the same mistake their parents did, in the other direction.
“There is an anti-Leon Uris narrative emerging that is as distorting as the original.
“That is not to underestimate what happened to the Women of the Wall,” he added. “There is an outrageous lack of respect for the non-Orthodox denominations from the top. But if one understands that there is no one Israel but a multitude of Israels, which reflect the reality of the ingathering of dozens of Jewish communities around the world, then one would relate to Israel in a more expansive and nuanced way.
“Israel is a wonderfully chaotic, anarchic society,” he said. “How wide a lens will you use to look at it?” It should be a very wide lens, he suggested.
Dr. Rachel Korazim, who followed a career in the Jewish Agency with her new life as a freelance educator with a part-time connection to the Hartman Institute, will be at Emanu-El the next Shabbat, which begins Nov. 2. In a Skype interview from Israel, she said that an assumption underlying much of her work is that the old paradigms governing the way we see Israel no longer work. One classical paradigm is made clear in the lament, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion,” from Psalm 137. The other is apparent in Judah Halevi’s early 12th century poem that begins “My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West.” In the first paradigm, we are in exile; in the second, we are living in beauty but Jerusalem is in ruins. “But for the last 60-odd years, both exiles and Jerusalem are doing fine,” she said.
Jerusalem certainly is not trouble-free, but it is flourishing, and Jews in exile live very well and have built fulfilling and actively Jewish lives. “We have to create a paradigm that allows for two success stories,” Korazim said.
At Emanu-El, she will teach a series that she thinks of as providing windows into Israeli society through literature.
“When you live outside Israel, there are various platforms or ways to get to know Israel,” she said. “It can be the Israel of the synagogue, or the Israel of fund-raising, or the Israel of the media. When you come to Israel often you take a tour, and it will show the highlights, but not necessarily the heart. When you are invited into the literature, you are invited into the intimate discourse of Israelis.”