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Israel Fatigue

Judaism’s story is one of commitment to journey independent of the rewards of arrival
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

I’ve spent the last two years talking about aspirational Israel – that is, talking about Israel in the framework of the “ought” and not always on the basis of what currently “is.” As an American Jewish liberal Zionist, this has been very freeing. It has enabled me to get out of the exasperating tennis game of defending Israel from rhetorical attacks, away from feeling ashamed about when Israel acts in ways that I think are against both her interests and her self-proclaimed values, and comfortable with the intellectual honesty that genuine Israel engagement brings. Do I like everything that I read about Israel in the news? No. But am I able to see Israel through a values-lens in a way that makes me feel connected to its successes, and motivated to be a partner (from afar) as it passes through its crucibles? Yes, and it is very liberating.
Many of the rabbis, educators and Jewish leaders with whom I have been studying and teaching this approach report a similar outcome. I studied this material with American rabbinical students in Israel who found freeing the ability to have a substantive conversation about their big questions, and about the ways in which Israel challenges the core categories and assumptions that they have about the rest of their Jewish values. I led a bet midrash, a study session, at AIPAC of all places; and we managed to find 150 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum and the political map in a room studying texts about Jewish messianic ideals, and thinking about how aspirational language helps us think about the unfinished business of Zionism even after the state has been created. It is a message and method whose time has come.
And yet, I find myself suffering sometimes from Israel fatigue. Israel fatigue is not the controversial syndrome of ‘distancing’ or disengaging from Israel, nor is it the act of criticizing Israel from afar (whether it is in one’s own interest, or altruistically on Israel’s behalf.) Israel fatigue is a different syndrome whatsoever, and it stems from the combination of a desire to engage seriously with Israel together with a frustration that aspirational Israel is not getting there as fast as we want it to. It stems from believing and endorsing Israel’s own rhetoric about its embrace of democratic values, and then watching public struggles around women in the public square and more subtle struggles by Arab citizens to experience the same network of rights in reality that they are promised in theory. It stems from watching the mob violence of soccer hooligans overtake Arab workers in a mall, without the hope for “land spitting out its inhabitants” that Deuteronomy inclines us to believe should happen next. It stems from a sense that we “all” share a belief in the two-state solution, that the occupation is basically untenable, that but for a negotiating partner this might get better; and then watching an Israeli government drag its feet around – or worse, actively support – expanded illegal settlement activity. Israel fatigue is the feeling of a Zionist rooting for his team to win, and sometimes feeling that the team is less motivated than the fans.
How is a lover of Israel to handle Israel fatigue?
In the news lately has been one answer, the counter-advocacy approach. When Israel frustrates you because it acts in ways that countermands your values, it is incumbent upon you to shift its direction – via the political process here, there, through philanthropy, or public advocacy. Perhaps this is right and has value, but it doesn’t quite capture the emotional issue involved. It responds to an emotional challenge with a behavioral response: you are feeling this way, so do this. Not all emotions demand behaviors; sometimes they need to be tended, acknowledged, and massaged.
Meantime the pro-Israel advocacy response I find equally disappointing, for it involves either changing the channel (don’t like the occupation? Let me show you a great new high-tech startup!), or questioning the questioner. Since it can’t be a real problem with Israel, it must be an issue of faulty data, or a pre-existing antipathy that cannot be helped (and should probably be maligned.) But I venture to say that in that room of 150 AIPAC rabbis – lobbying for Israel, passionate for the Jewish state – that push comes to shove and Israel fatigue hits a lot of them. It is not for failure of the Zionist to find one’s Zionism challenged by current events.
So the only approach I have left is a bit unfulfilling and unsatisfactory, and in some ways it is a reiteration of the core project itself: the attempt to see Israel, and Judaism altogether, as a sometimes Sisyphean process wherein ultimate success – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Eden just past the flaming swords, the promised land – is in some warped yet productive way always kept just out of reach. One of Judaism’s most trying demands of us is that it asks for commitment independent of reward. This is the metaphor of the Passover sacrifice that God demanded of the Israelites in Egypt that we signal our belief in the impending redemption by marking the blood on our doorposts before we had any assurances that the gesture would actually be acknowledged. One imagines the Israelites in morbid fear and anxiety during this period of vulnerability. And even so, though that generation lived to see the miracles of the Exodus, they did not merit crossing into the Promised Land.
Judaism’s story is one of commitment to journey independent of the rewards of arrival; and while a piece of the redemptive story of the Jewish people has been told in our lifetime with the birth, ascent and normalization of the state of Israel, we are not quite near where we are expected to be. Passover is still a Zionist holiday for me, even as this year we can actually be in Jerusalem, and my best answer to Israel fatigue is the seder anthem of “dayenu.” Would that we see ourselves fortunate for having achieved what we have achieved, even as we recognize the subversive irony of the song itself that it is never, ever actually enough.

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