Refocusing the Conversation

by Jonah Geffen and Kelly Cohen

We are trapped in a discourse that has no logical end. It has been asserted that the knowledge and life experience of the current generation of Rabbinical students with regard to Israel is cause for great concern and fear. The deans and Presidents of Rabbinical schools have responded to the contrary, stating that though perhaps more willing to “wrestle” with Israel, these students are wise and committed. And yet, this entire conversation remains shallow and paternalistic. The debate has been devoted strictly to the students, their teachers and the methods by which they are chosen and taught. We believe this discourse to be fundamentally flawed. We note with dismay that this conversation about Diaspora Jews and our relationship to Israel has left out Israel, its choices and actions.

It is true, we do have a different relationship with Israel than our parents’ generation. How could we not? The nature of the situation in Israel today is so vastly different than it was forty years ago. The world changes, people’s perceptions change, reality changes and our generation has been raised to understand that we must work to build a better future for Israel and to appreciate but not dwell on its past. We have been raised in the American ideal, that no human being should live subject to tyranny, that every individual should be judged on her or his own merit and to seek out the personal interaction needed for true understanding. We are comfortable and confident Jews – and this reality is not a character flaw. We know what we see with our own eyes. We see injustices, religious and political, that need to end. This is true not only because we refuse to see all Palestinians as our enemies, but fundamentally because we refuse to blind ourselves to the fact that the reality that has been created is bad for the Jewish People as a whole. It hurts us as a people to exist in this reality and creating further divides amongst ourselves is not the answer. We cannot truly be am hofshi b’artzenu until everyone b’artzenu is free. As long as we are perpetuating these injustices, stoking fears and succumbing to anger – we will not achieve this deep collective wish, articulated so beautifully in Israel’s national anthem.

For so many of us who choose to come to Israel, or are sent to Israel to learn for the year, we are confronted with a reality very different from the one about which we have been taught, shown on our teen tour, or even shown to others as leaders of those tours. The authentic American Jewish life in all its manifestations all too often runs contrary to the reality experienced when spending time in Israel. We are often forced to confront the exclusion of our own Judaism. We were taught and feel that Israel is a homeland for all Jews, we experience the profound power of walking the land of our ancestors, marvel as the changes in season meld so seamlessly with the Jewish calendar, and smile proudly as we hear the language of our people used to express our greatest hopes and ideas.

Yes, we believe that Israel in its purest sense is a homeland for all Jews, but over time and with experience we have come to understand the caveats to that rule – it becomes quite clear that homeland is a subjective term. Israel is a homeland for all Jews, but don’t try to get married here, don’t try to pray at the Kotel in a way you find authentic, don’t try to get a student visa to learn Torah if your halachic status is not acceptable to the Rabbanut. It is extraordinarily painful to feel outside of something that is at the core of your identity.

Still, this lack of religious pluralism, while deeply distressing and ostracizing to so many of us aligned with liberal movements in America is only the tip of the iceberg. We have been raised to believe that every Israeli truly wants peace, and that all that stands in the way are just some political barriers. Yet, after living here we can say without question that many Jews and Palestinians say that they want peace, but the peace they describe is a a far cry from the shalom for which we pray. When we are confronted by the deep fear of the other and the ways in which that manifests itself into structural violence and racism, we are shocked and want to work to make it better. We, who were taught that the Israeli Army is the most moral army in the world, are thrown into disequilibrium when we see our own acting cruelly to innocent Palestinians at checkpoints. We stand witness in disbelief as the very land we were taught to love is overturned, as trees are uprooted and mountains are moved all to build a giant concrete wall in the name of security. When soldiers protect settlers as they throw rocks at Palestinians we cannot comprehend this information because it does not fit anywhere in the reality of Israel that we were taught.

The problem is not the students and young Rabbis, and it is not how Rabbinical Schools are educating them. The problem is the Jewish reality that they are being asked to stand by and defend. The call to serve the Jewish people is born out of a deep love and desire to work to actualize our people’s potential in the world. While we must always be engaged in making ourselves and our programs better, what we most need is a collective commitment to fixing the brokenness of our greatest project, The State of Israel, and with it the growing brokenness of the Jewish People. We must remember the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “If you believe you can break it, you have to believe you can fix it.” The answer to a seemingly strained relationship between future Jewish leadership and the State of Israel is not avoidance, re-branding or unquestioning allegiance, but meeting Israel where it is and working to help it improve.

As an educator and rabbinical student, we have been tasked with caring deeply for the intellectual and spiritual needs of our students and congregants. We are taught that we are responsible for their achievement and behavior. If a student is having difficulty, do we simply tell her that she is doing fine? If a congregant is in crisis and doing damage to himself, do we tell his family to cheer him on? The State of Israel deserves, at the very least, the level of respect and care we have for our own students and congregants. We have no choice but to view ourselves as responsible for Israel’s achievement and behavior. If we see that either of these are not living up to the highest ideals of our tradition, then it is on us to do everything that we are able to help it to improve. Such improvement can only be realized through deep relationship and commitment. We are not afraid that if we look the bright light of Israel’s reality in the face we will have to turn away. We understand that concern, but know that for us, and for so many of our friends and colleagues who have chosen to devote their lives to serving the Jewish people, turning away is not an option. We are in this, we are committed, and we are here to stay. Israel is not a piece of our identity that we can take or leave, it is a deep part of who we are as members of the Jewish people, it is a part of our Rabbinate, of our classrooms, of our lives. We are not going to walk away, and we are not going to be pushed away. We have cast our lot with the Jewish people, with all of its projects, successes and failures.

We refuse to let this debate continue to be about us. To focus on us is to miss the point – so many of our brothers and sisters are suffering, and inflicting so much suffering on others. We refuse to sit by and watch as our family melts down, cultivates fear rather than courage, anger rather than compassion. The conversation should not be about us; it should be about Israel.

Kelly Cohen is a Jewish educator set to return to the U.S. after 4 years living in Israel. She holds a Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew College.
Jonah Geffen is a 4th year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and just returned from a year living in Jerusalem. He holds a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.

This article first appeared on Jewschool.