March 12, 2017

Navigating Your Connection with Israel

Guest Contributor: Rabbi Menashe East

At 70 years old, the state of Israel is young on the world stage. However, what the State of Israel has brought to the Jewish people in the 20th and 21st century – despite all the challenges she faces – is a Jewish experience unlike anything we have known in the 2,000 years prior to the state’s establishment
We can only recall in our history classes the pathetic station that Jews used to occupy. We were guests in foreign lands, reliant on the whimsical grace of our host countries.  
Over 70 years ago, the call to establish part of Palestine as the home of the Jewish people had universal appeal to the Jewish world. Jews in the former Soviet Union, Jews from unwelcoming European lands and Jews from Arab lands all viewed Israel as a safe haven for Jews of any background and any nationality.
In the U.S., we live in times when Israel is used, ironically, as a way to define one’s political affiliation and the degree of American patriotism. Who could have imagined 70 years ago that Israel would be an issue that could sway elections?
Nowadays, we easily overlook these facts. We all too often hear about the Israeli/Jewish occupation, a relic of colonialism; the equivalence of zionism to racism; Israeli soldiers as war criminals; and the boycott of Israeli academics.
Many of the college campuses that students at the Golda Och Academy will attend in the coming years will likely host Student Justice for Palestine groups. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israeli products is a popular mechanism now, encouraging economic upheaval as a way to bring about social change or anarchy, as the worst of its intended outcomes.
Many of these claims against Israel have gained traction in the Jewish community and this reality has polarized the American Jewish world. On December 23, 2016, the UN Security Council issued a resolution which criticized Israel’s settlement construction and cited this effort as the leading obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Typically, the U.S. would veto this vote and has always done so in the past. However, this time, the U.S. abstained and thereby allowed the resolution to pass. As American Jews, we may feel that Israeli settlement expansion is, indeed, harmful to the peace effort between Israel and Palestinians. We may be advocates of a two state solution, a position that the current Israeli government endorses. However, this rebuke at the UN, unopposed by the U.S., suggests that Israel is the obstacle for Palestinian statehood.
Richard Spencer, a leading voice in the Alt-right movement, an ascendant political group devoted to reclaiming white people’s connection to European heritage, which has been muddled by the melting pot of American society, recently came to speak at Texas A&M University. There, he applauded Israel’s/Jewish isolationism from outside influence.
Spencer claimed that Israel’s refusal to allow radical immigration into the land helped her preserve her identity. By extension, Spencer was using Israel’s model as a formula for the U.S., more specifically the Alt-right, to follow in its effort to reclaim European values.
In a liberal democracy, this type of conversation challenges us all how to best align our values as citizens of the United States. The Alt-right effort to restrict immigration and to preserve cultural barriers flies in the face of our strongly held beliefs. Namely, all of us – or at least all of our families – have benefitted from the U.S. embrace of immigrants. However, we may have reservations about the degree and extent to which Israel should open her doors to outsiders. Does this concern for Israel make me someone who colludes with Spencer and the Alt-right?
Then, of course, Israel’s domestic policy sends concerning messages to the Diaspora Jewish community. We hear of the oppressive ultra-Orthodox control over religious life in the areas of women and prayer and conversion standards and the reluctance to settle the Agunah problem, which keeps women chained to marriages where they live more like hostages than  human beings.
A few weeks ago, Israel’s civilian court concluded that Elor Azariyah, an IDF medic, was guilty of manslaughter, when he shot to death an already incapacitated attacker in Hebron. This case has sent shockwaves throughout Israeli society; some cheering the guilty verdict, while others demand a pardon and call Azariyah a hero.  
All of this and much more leaves us confused about our core relationship to the State of Israel. As Jews in the U.S., we live far from Israel – geographically, culturally and emotionally. We don’t understand the daily pressure of being a citizen in Israel; we don’t understand what it means to serve in the military there, to prepare for war after high school. Israel is the home of the Jewish people, so as Jews, even if we live in the Diaspora, for now, it is our home.
Then, it behooves us to understand these issues. Our relationship to Israel is being defined from the outside.
What do you feel about Israel? Why is the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land – a key theme in the covenantal promise between G-d and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – relevant for us today? Why do you think Israel is worth fighting for?

Rabbi Menashe East is the rabbi of Mount Freedom Jewish Center, located in Randolph. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and open-orthodox Yeshivah.

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