Israel is right,” “Israel is wrong,” Israel should do this or that … wherever I go, whatever I do, it seems many American Jews try to keep their engagement with Israel on a political basis.
Sometimes it feels as if the only connection to Israel is through the Israeli-Arab conflict. On Oct. 30, singer Uri Banai brought us a different Israel, a cultural, musical and funny Israel. He walked us through the recreation of a new-old Hebrew culture in our Altneuland, showed us rare videos translated into English of modern Israeli cultural cornerstones, and sang songs that rock the stages in Israel. He gave us a glimpse of what Israel really is.
Israel is not the land we see on the news nor is it the land we learned about in Sunday school. It is not the land of milk and honey nor is it a constant war zone. The Heartbeat of Israel series, through concerts like the upcoming Noa and Mira Awad concert on March 25 and special events like the early Chanukah party planned for Dec. 18, brings us the real Israel, the one behind the news stories. The Israel where people really live, go to school, go to work, go to the theater, have fun, get married and build their homes. It is not that politics is not part of the “real Israel,” it is just not the main part of it.
So why do many American Jews prefer to focus only on Israeli-Arab politics?
The simple answer would be the language barrier. Many years of translations of the Hebrew book shelf, of the Torah, Talmud and prayer books into English, have made it nearly redundant for Americans to struggle with learning Hebrew. The lack of Hebrew knowledge makes it more challenging to consume Israeli culture. But is this the full answer? Could the answer relate to lack of knowledge? Could it be that many American Jews simply do not know the deep historical Jewish connection to the land of Israel? As a partial answer to this challenge the Weintraub Israel Center and Congregation Or Chadash will cosponsor an adult education series starting Nov. 30 focusing on Israel and our Jewish roots. This series will go beyond the mirage of engagement through the Israeli-Arab conflict into the depth of Jewish identity, our collective memory and the real Israel with all its complexities.
But I must admit, this answer seems to be too simplistic. Could it be that the issue is beyond mere knowledge? Maybe, for some of us, Israel creates a reflecting mirror — a mirror we prefer to avoid looking at. What does the existence of a Jewish state imply for the Jewish community in the United States? What does it say about our Jewish identity and engagement?
The American Jewish relationship with Israel has always been complex. Should we support Israel? Should we make aliyah or remain the first Jewish community to live in the Diaspora out of choice? Is Israel, the start-up nation and high-tech leader, merely a safe haven for Jewish communities in danger, or has it become the best place for Jewish continuity? Is Israel really safe? Is it safer than Tucson or more dangerous? Can we maintain Jewish continuity here in Tucson without a deep engagement with Israel? Should we? What could be the price of such a deep engagement? What could be the price of avoiding it?
These are all very important questions that we as a community need to explore.
How can we talk about these questions in our community in a civil way? How can we engage with Israel and yet have our own voice? How can we sometimes disagree with Israel and yet love and support it? How can we encourage members of the Jewish community to know more about Israel and be positively engaged with it, despite the fears and the disagreements?
Please see this as a personal invitation to start the talk; talk Israel, the real Israel, beyond the conflict.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.