The most pressing issue facing Israel today is not a nuclear Iran. It is not the corruption in government. It’s not even the threat of a September request by the Palestinians for independence at the United Nations. The biggest threat facing Israel is the elimination of constructive public discourse amongst Israelis and Jews everywhere about the nature of the huge and wonderful Jewish enterprise known as the State of Israel.
We Jews believe in censure. Some of us feel commanded to give reproach. In the very middle of our Torah we read, “You shall surely rebuke! (Lev. 19:17)” And yet, the current Israeli government and many in the worldwide Zionist establishment are trying to change the rules of the game. This is unacceptable and does not appear to conform to a Jewish way of thinking.
The rabbi’s argued about this very issue. “Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this generation that can accept criticism.’ Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria responded, ‘I doubt if there is anyone in this generation that knows how to give criticism.’ (TB Arachin 16b).”
Sometimes we forget that tochecha, our command to rebuke, is surrounded by two other important commandments. “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” and “incur no sin because of this.” Context is everything.
Much of the discourse about Israel is framed in the language of love. What love means and how it is demonstrated are both very unclear. When I say that Israel is among the only places in the world where a Jew cannot exercise freedom of religion, I am referring to my personal experience of being forced to marry outside of my homeland because my Reform rabbi was not authentic Judaism for the Jewish state. I don’t want a theocratic, intolerant state for my people.
When I critique the Israeli educational system, as an insider with a doctorate in education, it is because I want the system to serve my children and my neighbors well. We take 13 years out of our kids lives and spend a good portion of our tax revenues on this project because we care about the future citizenry of the nation. When I oppose the occupation of the Palestinian Territories and advocate for human rights in all of the Land of Israel, I do this, first and foremost, as a Jew who cares about the behavior of his people. How I go about this is a different story. It is essential that I make every effort to incur no sin along the way, but there are no clear borders to what this means.
The rabbis of the Talmud worked in chevruta, learning dyads, to argue out the fine points of the civilization they wanted to leave for us. Sometimes the arguments went too far. Rebbe Yochanan’s obstinacy caused the death of Reish Lakish. Grief and having a “yes man” to replace him led to Yochanan’s demise. Jews don’t benefit from rubber stamps. We need challenges. They make us better as individuals and as a collective. They force us to reflect on our behavior and make choices that advance our purpose of being a holy nation.
We believe that we are commanded not to destroy our beautiful, promised land. “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” How can we prevent the defilement of the land without serious, constructive dialog? It is completely legitimate to argue tactics. It crosses a line when we try to define our fellow’s tactics as traitorous, disloyal or hateful just because we don’t agree with them. Nobody has a monopoly on the love of Israel, but we should reflect on the models of the expression of this love. It would be too simple to say that there are only two models, but for the sake of brevity, I will generalize.
There are those who say that loving Israel means letting her decide what is best for the country and then helping that decision find fruition. The other model says that to love means a different type of support. In this model, loving Israel requires acknowledging the whole and helping to correct the bad while continuing to promote and strengthen the good.
The first model proposes unconditional love. When I was a kid in America, the way we were expected to support Israel was by writing blank checks and letting the decisions happen in Israel. Part of the argument was that the Israeli Jews serve in the army and fight the wars; they suffer the recourse of their decisions. But bombs in Jewish buildings in Argentina, synagogues in Morocco and attacks in community centers in California show the faults of this approach. The world sees Israel as a Jewish project and the targets have no national borders. The unconditional love model has another serious problem. It doesn’t work.
The most unconditional love we humans know is for a new baby. Human babies are the only creatures that are born completely dependent on others. They cannot even turn over by themselves for several months, and it takes about a year before they start to crawl. Still, not all babies are loved by their parents.
As someone who trained and worked as a dairy farmer in Israel, I know that baby calves can walk and find their mothers to suckle immediately after their births. This is the same with every species except humans. Our babies need us for everything and the love we give them is unconditional because they are completely dependent and because they are our progeny.
As our children grow, we set borders and expectations. Rarely does the violation of those borders result in a termination of love. When I was an undergrad, my friend, the comedian Steve Allen shared a story about his son who had joined a cult, and he eventually made him choose between the cult and the family. This was an exception to the rule and would be a painful experience for any parent. Unconditional love doesn’t keep us straight and narrow. It doesn’t raise a mirror to our eyes and let us reflect on our behavior. With unconditional love, things go bad and we turn the other cheek. It is no small wonder that this form of love of Israel finds a comfortable bed partner in Christian Zionism.
The model of love of Israel that I subscribe to is holistic. I love so many things about our country. I also desperately want to right the wrongs. I love the dialog and hope to have the humility to assume that my vision for the country is not always right. I celebrate the diversity of citizens and I believe, as Churchill so gracefully put it, that “Democracy is the worst form of government, accept for all the others that have been tried.” I don’t like the tyranny of majorities, but I don’t mind getting dirty and arguing over the direction of my homeland. I am, however, getting pretty fed up with the attack that says that I don’t love Israel because I want to make her the best that she can be. That is simply untrue and hurts the cause. Just as the Torah has seventy faces, there are many ways to love one’s country. Mine is just as valid and may be more helpful.