A few weeks ago, an Israeli Ph.D. student studying with me at Columbia asked me why the majority of American Jews support Israel so unequivocally.
I’ve been thinking about that question. It’s hard to answer, and my first response, I soon felt, was inadequate. I thought about it more, and this is how I would answer that question.
Growing up in America, the quintessential melting pot, we were taught to embrace our diversity and have pride in our background. It’s part of what’s wonderful about being a patriotic American, where we can equally love our country and love where we came from. I have fond memories of elementary school, where my Greek, Armenian, Italian, Indian, black, and Korean friends would have their parents bring delicious ethnic dishes to school for International Day, which I looked forward to every year.
But when I was a child, my parents had no fond affiliations with the countries of their heritage. My grandparents are primarily from Russia, Hungary, and Austria, but I never had much affiliation with those countries, and I didn’t feel proud of them. My grandfather was a first-generation immigrant who fled the Russian Czar when he was merely 14 years old, arriving alone in America in 1910. His experience as a Jew was one of pogroms and oppression. My Hungarian grandmother’s entire family, with the exception of the uncle who immigrated to Argentina, was murdered in Auschwitz during the summer of 1944. It’s a horrifying thing to see on the family tree.
So what does this have to do with Jewish American identity and Israel? The bottom line is that the future of the Jewish people and Israel are inexorably linked. Israel is our historical homeland, Israel is in our liturgy, Israel is where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried, Israel is the only country in the world that speaks our ancient language. Israel is a miracle on earth, where medical and high technologies are discovered at an unprecedented rate and shared with the entire world. Israel is the only place on earth where traffic stops on Yom Kippur and where all the Jewish holidays are celebrated nationally. After two millennia of being persecuted, expelled, and violated, and finally after the horrors of the Holocaust, the world realized that for safety, Jews need to return to their national homeland, which began in 1881 and was born against all odds in 1948 out of swamps, malaria, desert, dust, toil, love, and miracles.
I’ve had a love affair with Israel since I was a little girl. This love has continued, and I have passed it onto my children. I couldn’t be more proud of my son, who served as a lone soldier on the front line of democracy in defense of our homeland, and who now, as an American Jew, speaks fluent Hebrew. I have spent most of my adult life believing and fundraising for the Jewish people, and I am proud to continue that journey by serving on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency and in my study of human rights at Columbia.
I’m opening up my eyes to the human rights abuses and violations in Israel and the West Bank, as well as Israel’s internal struggles regarding the rights of women and religious pluralism. I work hard to learn more and to try to make connections so as to ameliorate these issues. However, I keep these in mind in regard to the global stage. The human rights abuses in countries around the world — including the United States — are numerous. What’s going on right here, with the chipping away of abortion rights, the immigrant situation on our southern border, the ongoing discrimination against the black community, and the decimation of the Indian community are national embarrassments and points of great contention.
However, other countries fare far worse in regard to their human rights abuses. You don’t need to look further than Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Turkey, North Korea, Qatar, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Sudan, China, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and many, many others. I believe that Israel’s right to sovereignty and security supersedes that of any human rights violations, particularly because it holds over half of the global Jewish population. I also firmly believe, however, that the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination and a claim to human rights.
Look what’s happening right now in Gaza, where Hamas is gunning down their own people in the street. Palestinians have a right to live in dignity, but their leadership won’t allow it simply because they hate Israel. I believe that both Hamas and Hezbollah, which call for the destruction of Israel, are terrorist organizations. It’s truly a shame that the Palestinians are ruled by terrorists in Gaza and by corruption in the West Bank. In order for there to be peace, Israel needs a peace partner.
In regard to loyalty, while I might not agree with all the United States’ policies, and I might not like the current leadership, I will never forsake her. I love America, and I believe that she is the best country in the entire world allowing for the most opportunity anywhere. Although I would like to spend time in other places, I could never abandon her.
The same goes for Israel. I will always love her as my historic homeland, no matter what her policies and no matter who her leader is. I will never abandon her, and I will always fight for her in every way I know how. Israel’s future is linked to mine and my children’s, just as it is linked to my past and my ancestors.
Far from being simply Plan B, Israel is central to our identity as Jewish Americans. It is incredibly insulting to think that this special place, where my cousin Hannah just moved, where my son Harrison proudly served, and where I return time and time again to help improve policy, is somehow a mere place to escape to in case things look bleak. It is much, much more than that.
As American Jews, it is our spiritual home.
Dana Adler of Tenafly is a graduate student in human rights at Columbia University. She has been a Jewish communal leader for the better part of the last two decades and now is a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.