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‘Anti-Israel’ Sentiment May Express Something Deeply Jewish

Batsheva Meiri: Extreme polarization around issues facing Israel is one of the most difficult challenges our Jewish communities in North America face


Extreme polarization around issues facing Israel is one of the most difficult challenges our Jewish communities in North America face. On the one hand, there is a great desire among Jews to feel a sense of peoplehood or family resemblance, a set of principles, values and identifiers which connect us to one another. Until a number of years ago, one could say that participating in the revitalization of the Jewish people in the State of Israel was one of those core values. Despite deep differences in theology, culture, and ritual practice, most of the Jewish world cried together when Israel hurt and rejoiced together when Israel prevailed.

On the other hand, the narrative of Israel around which North American Jews rallied had been an idealized one: one which promised that Jewish sovereignty would look different from the nations of the world. We were captivated by the notion that we might fulfill the Herzlian dream of Israel as a model nation-state to the world, emanating light, peace, and unity of all peoples. Planting a tree in Israel was like planting a little bit of our souls in its soil. And there was no sweeter, purer place to breathe the air of being Jewish. 

If this was the content of why Israel became a powerful “religious” notion in the 20th century, an emerging feature of 21st century Jewry is a growing fragmentation of the narrative. For some North American Jews, there is growing discomfort with the direction Israel is heading as it confronts it’s geopolitical and internal realities. For them, today’s Israel isn’t fulfilling her mission of being a state that reflects their most precious values, responding to its challenges instead in ways that mystify their Jewish consciences.

Others remain stalwart in seeing Israel’s growth and development as a nation over the decades as nothing short of a political, religious, technological, and economic miracle, despite overwhelming challenges to its survival. Not only that: in a world with anti-Semitism on the rise, supporting Israel as safe haven for the world’s Jews feels essential. For their friends or family members to speak of Israel’s failings mystifies their Jewish conscience. They might expect those views from people outside of the Jewish community or from anti-Semites, but it is nothing short of betrayal coming from one of “us.” There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground on this point: one is either loyal to Israel as is, or a self-hating Jew.

As difficult as it is for those of us who feel deeply bound to the Jewish State and those who feel disillusioned though ultimately loyal, it is critical for us as a community to open to the possibility that those who express “anti-Israel” sentiments may be expressing deeply Jewish intuitions. We can choose not to fragment ourselves into camps and believe we are resilient enough as a community to hear what our fellow Jews feel they need to contribute to the conversation. If there is a truth with which we need to grapple together, we will all be stronger for it. Our dialogue around Israel must be for us a machloket l’shem shamayim (conflict for the sake of heaven), one serving the highest of purposes, not one that tears us apart.

At the end of the day, what is at stake for us all as Jews is how true we each can be in reflecting the face of Torah when we speak and act on our convictions. It’s not only remaining in relationship with Jews of all kinds but in the pureness of our intentions in how we engage in difficult conversations that we may discover again how bound we are to one another and find a way forward.

Batsheva Meiri is rabbi of Congregation Beth HaTephila, Asheville, NC, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute

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