Hagai El-Ad Headshot

Seeing Israel as it Is from Afar, but Not Keeping a Distance

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Sometime between Israel's first Human Rights March in Tel Aviv and getting falsely arrested in Sheikh Jarrah, I had the pleasure of being one of close to 2,000 participants in the annual Limmud in the UK. The Limmud Conference brings together Jews from all walks of life, for five days of workshops, discussion and learning in what the JTA calls "Europe's largest and perhaps the worlds most influential Jewish Event." It was my second Limmud, and as before I was moved by the conference's diversity and energy, and by the very personal sense of a deep relationship with Israel that I encountered. Many Israelis speak at Limmud each year, and I was fortunate to be one of them, as a guest of the New Israel Fund. Throughout the week, I was a part of many discussions on Israel. And through these conversations, it was impossible to not notice some new perspectives emerging with regard to my homeland.

While the relationship with Israel is undoubtedly deep and lasting, the past year has left many friends wondering about the best way to support Israel, and whether there is a way in which they can both express their love and affinity for Israel and at the same time be true to their Jewish and humanitarian values. Undeniably, there are many reasons to be proud of the achievements of Israeli society. And yet, quite a few policies of Israel's current government have led many to experience Israel less as a source of pride and identification, and more as a source of disappointment or even embarrassment. This has created some profound dilemmas for Jews who are struggling to redefine what it means to support Israel today.

A New Paradigm

The tradition of defending any and all Israeli policies against critics seems to finally be giving way to a more nuanced approach, of developing specific positions based on whether the relevant policies uphold human rights and correspond to the humanitarian values that are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. As an Israeli who shares these values, I welcome this paradigm shift. It is inconsistent to struggle for human rights, social justice, and equality in one's own country, and to be doing this from a Jewish perspective - while at the same time ignoring very disturbing trends prevalent in Israel. We should apply a single, consistent set of values throughout.

What may have led to this recent acceleration in the paradigm shift of what it means to support Israel? Here are some major aspects of what is reflected from Israel today: throughout 2009 and into 2010 we have witnessed a watershed of discriminatory and polarising initiatives against Arab citizens of Israel, from the Nakba Law to the proposal to only use Hebrew transliteration in road signs in Arabic. Such policies simply cannot be reconciled with a life of social justice nor with the halakhic values of Kevod HaBeriyot - respect for the dignity of all of God's creations. One of the forces behind this alarming trend has been Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and his ultra-nationalist party, a party which if it were in Western Europe, would be considered a part of the dangerous re-emergence of the extreme right on the continent. Though Lieberman's racist policies and others like it have been met with fierce opposition by thousands of concerned Israelis, the silence of others has been too loud, reinforcing a process in which racism and anti-democratic initiatives become mainstreamed.

Further, Israel's democratic core is being undermined by many additional alarming developments: the escalating campaigns aimed at weakening the High Court of Justice and discrediting, McCarthy-style, human rights activists; further radicalization of ultra-orthodox positions, from mehadrin (gender-segregated) buses to the outrageous arrest of a woman at the Western Wall - for wearing a prayer shawl; the ongoing abuses against immigrant workers and asylum seekers; the unacceptable plan to expel their (very Israeli) children - and these are only a few of the key unfortunate examples that together are destabilizing Israeli society.

And if all this weren't sufficient, consider the prolonged occupation, now in its 43rd year, and its accumulated disastrous effects. This passing year, the war on Gaza and the continued siege, which impedes the flow of basic civilian goods in and out of Gaza, have brought renewed attention to Palestinian suffering. This attention has been reflected in the Goldstone report and the attempted arrest warrants overseas, including in the UK. Many friends who are trying to comprehend these developments thoughtfully cannot understand Israel's insistence on refusing to hold a serious, independent investigation into operation Cast Lead. If everything were fine, as claimed by the IDF, why not enable a credible investigation in order to clear all the allegations?

As Israelis, we need to know whether actions undertaken in the Gaza Strip during the days of fighting were conducted in accordance with our moral standards and the rules of war. Around the world, as well as in Israel, many feel that as flawed as the Goldstone report may be, there is certainly no basis to discount it completely nor to avoid a serious follow-up investigation. After all, the report addresses explicitly not only the conduct of the IDF, but also the obviously illegal launching of Qassam rockets on civilian targets in Israel over the past years. The report also clearly upholds Israel's obvious right to defend itself. Why is the government ignoring the call for an investigation, a call that was voiced by Israeli human rights groups and has been reinforced by many international actors? And why are those Israelis that are demanding a credible investigation by Israel being portrayed as enemies of the state, traitors, or worse?

Jewish Values, Universal Values

There is a price for the alienation between what many Jews regard as Jewish values and the various steps recently taken by the government of Israel. For many of us, Jewish identity in the 21st century is anchored less in orthodox religious traditions and more in the values of equality and justice for all those created in God's image. It then becomes excruciatingly difficult to reconcile such a Jewish identity with an Israel that is an occupying power, inegalitarian, extremist, and indifferent to the world.

There are those who respond to this crisis with a wish to silence dissenting voices, as though if only Israeli and international human rights organizations were to stop their activities and reports, the image of the state of Israel might miraculously be rehabilitated and the underlying problems would disappear. Sadly, many Israelis share this attitude, including probably our current Foreign Minister. This approach, however, fails to recognize the world we all live in, and is deeply counterproductive.

Those who genuinely care about the State of Israel should let issues of image rest for a while and turn to matters of essence. If a country operates in a democratic, egalitarian, and just way, its image will follow suit and take care of itself. The solution does not lie in PR campaigns in Israel or overseas. There are no shortcuts: The solution lies in an essential change in the set of values guiding Israel's leadership. Indeed, an Israel that is more democratic, egalitarian, and just will not only have a better international image and be a place that more people identify with, but, even more importantly, it will be a better place for all of its own citizens - Jewish and non-Jewish - to live in.

In this respect, the current situation, discouraging as it may be, should not entail a unilateral withdrawal by those who are disappointed, concerned, or outraged by the ongoing barrage of anti-democratic news from Israel. On the contrary, the response should be an even closer, more informed and involved relationship, standing side by side with those in Israel who are working to realize a future that upholds and respects human rights for all, realizing a vision of social justice, equality, and freedom.

We have an immense challenge before us. But as Rabbi Tarfon teaches us in Pirkei Avot "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither may you exempt yourself from it." The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, mending the world, has always been an expression of universal values, not sectarian ones. It courageously speaks of all of humanity, not just some. It is time to have faith in and activism for Tikkun Olam - in Israel. So do not yearn for a perfect promised land that does not exist and do not scold those who point to its critical faults and strive to better them. Instead - see Israel as it is; be informed, speak out, get involved, and be part of a struggle which is both universal and Jewish, for an Israel we will all eventually be able to be proud of.

An edited version of this piece was originally published as a comment in Hebrew on nrg, the Israeli news website of Maariv.