21 March 2015

Don't Like the Israeli Election? Look in the Mirror

As American Jews, we often like our Zionism on the bookshelf
Jerusalem built up; a city knit together.  Psalm 122:3
For generations, the classical interpretation of this text is rooted in the idea that there are two Jerusalems, one on Earth and one in Heaven.  Bound together, by fate, faith, destiny and history, one waits patiently for the other to be rebuilt.

This is the Jewish eschatological world-view.  With the holy city having been destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 AD, God was exiled along with the Jewish people.  Through the agency of time and repentance--because, after all, it was "because of our sins that we were exiled from the land"-- along with the assiduous and devoted observance of the commandments, the Jewish people would earn their way back into God's grace and merit the coming of the Messiah, who would herald God and Israel's return to the City of Peace.

But after nearly two thousand years of waiting, some Jews lost patience with the idea of a religious resolution to an ongoing historical crisis.  Zionism, one might say, was a "revolution against the rabbis."  It was an exhaustively conceived, theoretical case for neither praying nor waiting but kickstarting, as techno-centric millenials might say, a diplomatic and pioneering effort of previously unimaginable proportions, to pick oneself up and go home.  Not to wait for redemption but to redeem the land; not to pray one's service but to labor in the practice of creating a social, economic and political infrastructure that would, within a half-century, build up and knit together centuries of Jewish hope with a radically sudden, immediate, irrevocable reality.

The older I get the more I appreciate this undeniable achievement.  One hundred years ago, in 1915, the Ottoman Empire still ruled Palestine, not yet having lost the territory to the British, who would go on to win the war and inherit, with considerable and understandable reluctance, the responsibility for determining who could live in the land.  By the 1920s it would be clear to all that Jews and Arabs would fight with every breath and fiber of their being for advantage and behave, in turn, in decidedly unheavenly ways to achieve their ends.

Prior to the Second World War and up to our own day, it was always the case that the majority of world Jewry would elect to live more closely to the Heavenly Jerusalem, leaving for dreamers, pioneers and persecuted refugees fleeing pogroms, rampant anti-Semitism, and ultimately, the Holocaust, Earthly Jerusalem.  By war's end and the balance of Diaspora power shifting to the United States, American Jews expressed their Zionism primarily through financial support and diplomacy.  Like Gad, Reuben and the half-tribe of Menashe that asked Moses for permission to live outside the land and enjoy its economic wealth--while promising to offer support in time of war--American Jews are, for the most part, Zionists of the heart and the wallet.

We have opinions but we don't really live them down there, on the ground.  We remain lofty and distant, even heavenly in our ideals and aspirations for the Jewish homeland.

Our generosity is admirable.  Even inspiring.  And when it is rooted in the pluralistic and democratic values that we cherish so deeply as American Jews, we are even proud of the ways in which our influence shapes a more civil, diverse and expressive Israeli democracy.

We fought to free Soviet Jews, creating an aliyah of more than a million Russian Jews to Israel; in the hundreds of millions of dollars we philanthropically support a social service infrastructure that engages all of Israel's citizens--Jewish and Arab; through the ballot we vote for candidates to public office based on their records of support for or against Israel.  We have business relations; arts and cultural exchanges; Israelis working in our summer camps and Hebrew schools.  We gain especially warm feelings from the Israelis who cut our hair, fix our cars, sell us soap, and serve us hummus right here at home that tastes just like the hummus in Tel Aviv.  Even Birthright, a program that has taken nearly a half million Jews to Israel on a free ten-day trip since its inception a bit more than a decade ago, is not a mass aliyah movement.  It's meant to be--and finds its greatest success--in being a Jewish educational shot in the arm.  Frankly, I love it.

What we don't do, with the exception of a relatively small measure of Orthodox Jews who vote with their feet by becoming Israeli citizens, is become Israeli ourselves.  In the nearly120 years since the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, we prefer our Zionism to remain here and not there.  We lead with our mouths, even our hearts, but not our feet.  The books on our shelves, the magnets on our refrigerators, the chocolates we eat at Hanukah time, enlighten and sweeten the distance between here and there.  The blogs and letters to the editor we compose; the votes we cast for Gentiles who serve us in the hallowed halls of power; the t-shirts and slogans and stickers and demonstrations on campuses and town squares betray a darker, more shameful reality:  We know what's best; but far be it from us to live it.

This is the lens through which I view last week's election in Israel.  I was neither surprised by Bibi's cravenly racist campaign rhetoric (there's more than enough of that in American history) nor the trenchant partisan uses and abuses of Israel as a campaign cudgel between Republicans and Democrats gearing up for the 2016 presidential campaign.

But put it raw political terms.  If Likud won the election in a landslide of 200,000 votes, triggering yet again a crisis for a certain segment of the liberal American Jewish elite (of which, I guess, I'm a reluctant member) imagine a different scenario of 10,000 liberal American Jews making aliyah each year, for twenty years, and causing, in turn, their own revolution inside Israeli electoral life.

Impossible?  A pipe dream?  Why?

Since the early Reagan era in the United States the Republican strategy has been to win state houses across the country, redraw districts, and ensure power and influence for generations.  The long game, well-organized and executed with precision, wins.  An opportunist like Scott Walker is able be part of a political movement to dismantle the New Deal and the Great Society because he stands on the shoulders of more than three decades of a strategy to put him in place to do it.

Does liberal Zionism have the strength, resolve and patience to deploy a similar strategy?

I read about last week's election in Israel and when I look up from the screen, I go look in the mirror. The resolution to challenges in Israel begin with me.  And you.

Who are we as Jews?  And what are we really willing to do about it?


Anonymous said...

OK let me get this straight: My daughter, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago thinking that women were equal to men, is supposed to make aliyah, put on a uniform, pick up a gun and get shot at, to protect a bunch of yeshiva punks who run around Jerusalem spray-painting black paint over the faces of women on posters....and who think she's not a Jew because they don't like what she eats.

Sorry, I didn't raise a sucker.

Andy Bachman said...

Anonymous in Chicago: Surely you didn't take your daughter and run in the opposite direction when racists or anti-Semites marched in Chicago, did you? Just because there are people who do things in Israel that are objectionable to you, it doesn't make someone a "sucker" for facing off against those who would harm democracy and change the situation to the good.

ginzy - Efrat / J'lem said...

First, a note to the web master -- I wrote a reply and then signed in. As a result, my longish considered reply was lost (I will try to reconstruct it). Please post a warning to sign in BEFORE writing a post or fix the site such that one can compose their post even before they sign in.


I write as someone who made aliyah from Chicago nearly 20 years ago. My sons and son-in-law (the Israeli one) all studied in yeshivot (albeit not the "black" ones) and then served in the IDF in combat units. At times they were called upon to compromise their religious principles in order to protect other engaged in activities that violated those same religious principles. Other times they went into combat in with its attendant risks, to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences of what they saw as ill-conceived and ill-begotten policies with which they strongly disagreed. One of my daughters did opted for civilian national service with the One Family organization doing her utmost to assist the victims of the Oslo Accords War, here too dealing with the consequences of ill-conceived policies (my other daughter served in the IDF in a non-combat, mission-critical position to avoid future problems, but that is another story.

My point here is that the point of doing national service, be it military or civilian, is to contribute a few years of time to the betterment or protection of the country / society in which one lives, even when doesn't necessarily agree with all of the decisions and polices of that country / society and even when one is literally picking of the pieces stemming from the consequences of such problematic policies. Picking and choosing when yes and when no is prescription for anarchy. This does not mean you give up your red lines or that you don't try to change those policies. Rather you have to be ready to accept the consequences of not crossing those red lines and defer acting to change those policies until after the period of national service is over.

I did not raise my kids (who were born in the USA and spent significant parts of the their childhood there) as suckers. I raised them to be contributing members of society who recognize that being part of a heterogeneous society means having to live with compromise where possible in order to live with others. I raised them to value life in Israel, the Jewish state as an ideal with all its imperfections, and to be willing to contribute to that ideal.


P.S. One thing about Israel's imperfections, no two Israelis will agree on what those imperfections are. Indeed, what is a problem to one often is a feature to another. And that is why we have so many political parties (over 100 registered, of which about 26 fielded lists in the most recent election). And yet, for the most part, when the chips are down (which seems to happen every several years) people put aside their differences and pull together.

Anonymous said...

The liberal US Jewish community is weak and dwindling because of assimilation and intermarriage. The number of actual liberal Jews who are actual Jews and who are deeply engaged is so paltry that it's hard to imagine more than a handful of them making aliyah. Only the Orthodox have that kind of passion anymore.

Y. Ben-David said...

The question, Andy,is WHY should those 10,000 "liberal" Jews make aliyah? Just in order to vote for an Israeli Prime Minister whom President Obama approves of? As an American who made aliya almost 29 years ago, I see that the American Jewish "religion" is political liberalism and "progressive" social values. Why should they move to Israel when they have such a supportive environment for their "progressivism" in the US. Obama, who received the large majority of the Jewish vote both times he ran, is, at the same time, strongly disliked, if not despised by a clear majority of Israeli Jews. Thus, we see that American Jewry and American Jewry are talking past one another,. Add to that that non--Orthodox American Jewry is rapidly assimilating and demographically evaporating, while Israeli Jewry is undergoing a major spiritual JEWISH revival and is demographically growing more healthy.
A Jew who feels his Judaism is the most important thing in his life knows that Israel is the ultimate destination if he or she is not there yet. American Jewry is whithering away, the future of the Jewish people lies in Israel. That is what will speak to American Jewry, not attempting to export its "progressive" ideology to a place where it is completely irrelevant.

Andy Bachman said...

Y. Ben-David. Thanks for writing. I fear I've been misunderstood. I'm not advocating that 10,000 American Jews make aliyah annually in order to vote in an Obama progressive agenda. (Though it would be nice to see a progressive billionaire buy an alternative to Sheldon Adelson's free newspaper!) My larger point is that "progressive" Jews who feel alienated from an Israel that doesn't look or feel like them, the solution could be not turning away but embracing and changing society, just as has always been done wherever Jews have lived.

I have to strongly object to your characterization of progressivism being "exported." The early Zionists (as well as clear plurality of Israeli voters in the last election) were quite progressive--supporting ideas like equality before the law, a strong social safety net, and a deep an abiding compassion for the other, as commanded by the Torah. In this age, we are more authentic in our Jewish pursuits by rejecting "either/or" constructs and understanding that when we look beneath the surface, things are far more complicated than they seem.

Y. Ben-David said...

Thank you for posting my comment and your response. I just want to point out that I think most Israelis who voted for the parties that compose the "Right-wing" bloc that won the election would agree with the important values you stated such as equality before the law and the strong social safety net.
The problem is that the values of the early Zionists, which were embodied by the ideology of Labor/Socialist ZIonism and which were represented by the MAPAI (Labor) and MAPAM parties (today part of MERETZ) have been rejected by the modern incarnation of these political movements. Few people in the Labor party want to return to Israel's stifling, stagnant, proteksia-ridden socialist system and many of their representatives in the Knesset have stated clearly their discomfort with the basic values of Zionism and having a "Jewish" state, as opposed to a non-national state in which Jews merely comprise the majority This ideological vacuum has enervated those political movements, which finally lead to them basing their recent election strategy on avoiding discussing issues and just saying "our platform is that we are against Netanyahu", thus leading to the political Left's biggest defeat in history.Until they can come up with some real content for the political movements which are in accord with the strongly "Jewish" conciousness of the majority of the Jewish population in Israel, they will be continue to be condemned to continued political irrelevancy.

In any event I find it refreshing to see an American Jew like yourself who passionately cares about Israel and is willing to be "in your face" about presenting the challenge of aliyah and Zionism to American Jewry which desperately needs to be shaken out of its lethargy.

Andy Bachman said...

Fair enough, YB-D, though I'd qualify your critique of early Labor Zionism by saying (and I think you'd agree) that "stifling, stagnant" system was every bit as limiting at say, an economy run by oligarchs with an overabundance of shekels and dollars in Swiss bank accounts! On one level you're making a kind of argument that Asher Ginzberg made (and I'm taking liberties here)--namely, that the strengthening of Jewish identity and culture in the center, in Eretz Yisrael, has the power to emanate and uplift the Diaspora. American Jews need Israel more than many realize or care to admit. That's my burden, I suppose, to change people's mind's here. Or give up and come there--but that has its own complications.

Y. Ben-David said...

Shalom and Shavua Tov, Andy-
While no one likes the the idea of having the economy run by oligarchs, it is undeniable that EVERYONE's standard of living today in Israel is much higher than it was in the late, unlamented socialist period. We came to Israel in 1986, mail was often delivered only once a week, the waiting period for getting a telephone from the socialist, government-owned phone company had been recently reduced from FIVE YEARS to "only" six months. It was the "right-wing" anti-socialist Likud government under Netanyahu that made the shekel convertible on the international market which the socialist Labor Party vehemently opposed and which made life much more livable, ending all the ridiculous restrictions on importing consumer goods which are now available in plentitude. When we came, a new VCR machine cost THREE THOUSAND SHEKELS. When I last bought one some years ago, it cost something like 200 shekels. Automobiles are much cheaper (although still not really cheap enough!) than they were then, and financing them with loans is much easier to do today.
That is why few Israelis miss the old socialist system. And I repeat that it lead to massive corruption and the need for "proteksia".
I will give you another example. In the past, when there was a mass aliyah of a less-educated group, such as the Ethiopian Jews, they were forced to live in outlying development towns., being sent there by the government to "absorption centers". To provide employment for these new olim, the gov't would give subsidies to some shady "enterpeneur" who took the money, set up a factory in that town, producing some sort of low-tech widget for which there was no real market but which hired these new olim. After 3 years or so, the subsidy, which the "entrepeneur" (who had political connections with the MAPAI leadership) would close the factory and the workers would be thrown into the unemployment line for an indefinite period.
Today, the absorption centers have been closed, the olim are given rent money, and later subsidized mortagages and they can choose to live wherever they want, while special services for olim are given in an office in the town where they live. Today, we see many young Ethiopians working in the greatly expanded retail sector where they often work as check-out clerks, instead in some grimy small-time factory, in central cities and they are learning computer skills which will hopefully give them a head start for advanced education which is available near where they live. This is due to the fact that they are working in more stable, profitiable businesses
One more bad memory Israelis have of the old socialist system was the fact that the Histradrut and Hevrat Ovdim controlled much of the industry in Israel. In their framework, "the workers" supposedly owned the plant, but that meant that your boss was also your union rep, so if you didn't like your boss, you had no way to protest it, meaning that workers had less redress for grievances than did a worker in a capitalist-owned factory.
I know American Jews have this rather strange (in my view) attachment to socialism for historical reasons which is bizarre since they have all benefited from the American capitalist system, and they thought we Israelis should live with socialism (and suffer from it) while they had it good in America so they could "feel good about themselves" as wannabe socialists. Fortunately, Israelis have woken up and are creating a world-leading economy.