I usually describe my hometown of Rehovot as being “south of Tel Aviv.” But when I visited last summer, geography was defined differently: Rehovot was in 90-second range of rocket attacks from Gaza.
The soundtrack started each time with a whiny, wailing siren. Then came the scramble to the nearest shelter or safe space. Next, the buzzing and chirping of cell phones. Then the loud “boom” — not, hopefully, the rocket impact — but an Iron Dome missile intercepting the incoming projectile. In my head, I always heard the American national anthem, and felt gratitude to the U.S. for funding this life-saving system.
The Israeli people, typically so fractious and quarrelsome, came together in amazing ways during the 50-day war. Children sent letters and drawings to soldiers. People brought flowers and cookies to the injured in hospitals. They delivered sandwiches and set up free lemonade stands along the roads, thanking infantrymen headed into and back from Gaza. Tens of thousands attended funerals of complete strangers, paying final respects to those who paid the ultimate price to defend their country. It was a remarkable show of unity — think 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., then multiply by 10 or 20.
At the same time, some friends in Seattle were wondering whether it was even OK to express solidarity with Israel. On the news, the devastation of Gaza appeared immeasurably worse than the attacks on Israel. Does supporting Israel also mean support for war, violence, death, and destruction? What was so morally clear and obvious in Israel seemed murky and ambiguous 8,000 miles away.
The rift in our own community is far from healed. In my own education and public speaking, I strive to unite the Jewish community around Israel. I focus on identifying areas of agreement — which are substantial — and engaging constructively and respectfully in areas where we disagree. We must recognize that there are many shades of gray, and we must tolerate and even celebrate diverse opinions so each of us may find our own ways of expressing support for Israel, both in times of conflict and in its quest for peace.
This has been an eventful 12 months for Israel, beginning with the tragic deaths of the three Israeli and one Arab teenager, and continuing with the Gaza war and the Israeli elections. These events have exposed the divisions not only among Israelis, but also among American Jews, and even within ourselves. Personally, it has been challenging to stay true to my values: I believe Israel has a moral duty and the right to protect its citizens from attack, but it was impossible not to be anguished over the tragic amount of destruction and loss of life in Gaza. Did the duty to protect justify the response?
These feelings made it difficult for me to show up for any community events. My tendency was to judge an event by its organizer to try to determine its political stance, and then, feeling that the event didn’t reflect the complexity of my feelings, avoid the event entirely. But I’ve come to believe that precisely here lies the danger: the criticism for not toeing a particular line, whatever that line is, causes many people to turn away from dealing with Israel at all, and yet Jewish identity is impoverished without a connection to the land of Israel.
So what can be done? Yossi Klein Halevi recently articulated two principles that resonated with me. The first is that delegitimizing fellow Jews is itself a kind of existential threat. The second is humility. The phrase “anti-Israel” when applied to fellow Jews needs to be abandoned.
We need to acknowledge that none of us has a monopoly on concern for Israel, and none of us knows for certain what policies will do most to ensure its survival. We might instead shift our conversation to one of values: what are our shared aspirations for Israel, and what is our obligation to help achieve that vision? And most of all we need to stop avoiding the topic and avoiding each other.
So this year I have decided to attend as many events as possible. Our community will thrive only when we are able to share the complexity of our positions with all of those who have the same love for Israel as we do.