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Depressed About Israel? Don't Be. It's A Thousand Times Better Than Its Appalling Government

It's like this. If the only page you read in the newspaper is the obituary section, it's going to appear to you that people are sure dying a lot.

That same metric applies to news about Israel. If you confine your reading to news about the Gaza war, the continuing blockade, and the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, it is pretty easy to give up on the whole place.

Of course, we do not measure our own country solely by the nature of our politics. If we did--if we judged the United States based on the policies we engaged in over the past eight years and especially by the Iraq war--we would have to conclude that we are one sorry nation. But, of course, we don't judge America that way. We live here and we know that America is more than the sum total of its politics, politicians, and policies.

The same goes for Israel. The forty-two year occupation is horrendous, but Israel is about more than the occupation.

As for its people, one can argue that they are responsible for the occupation, but no more than the average American is responsible for the Iraq horrors. Democracy or no democracy, neither individuals nor nations as a whole can be fairly judged strictly on the basis of actions taken by their governments (even if they elected those governments). That is why it is not legitimate to kill or starve innocent Palestinians in Gaza on the grounds that "they voted for Hamas."

That is easy to forget when one is dealing with a foreign country. The news we tend to hear about them largely centers on governmental policies. But, because we don't live there, these are not offset by the personal experiences of day-to-day living, as is the case with one's own country.

I'm lucky. I know Israel well, having traveled there regularly since my teenage years. After dozens of visits of varying lengths, I know the Israel behind the headlines. And I know that the real Israel is its own saving grace.

Unfortunately, many of Israel's advocates in this country do not make any effort to present the real Israel. They are too busy selling Israel's policies in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, or hounding presidential appointees who do not march in lockstep behind those policies.

Even on campus, pro-Israel kids are trained to defend policies that are often indefensible and that will never ever fly on an American college campus (or anywhere other than amongst the Israeli right's amen choir here).

And that is why young people, including an ever growing number of young Jews, are turned off by Israel. For them, Israel is no more, and no less, than the sum total of its policies. That is why if I were running Israel's "hasbara" (public relations) efforts on campus or among people under forty, I'd use the slogan, "Israel, Yes: Occupation, No."

Unfortunately, that approach will never be adopted because most of the people involved in selling Israel care more about promoting Israel's policies than the country itself. They are engaged in a political battle designed to promote the policies of the government of Israel, not Israel. And, even more, their power to influence Middle East policies here.

They tend to be indifferent to the extraordinary happenstance of living at a time when there is a thriving Jewish country in which some seven million people speak a language that was dead for two millennia. They don't know much about its history; they don't know much about its geography. They are people who do not enjoy eating an ice cream on the promenade along the beach in Tel Aviv nearly as much as pressuring some Congressman to oppose humanitarian aid for Palestinians and any dealings with Iran.

You will even see this approach on those quasi-official tours of Israel (including the trips for kids) that focus heavily on Jerusalem and very little, if at all, on Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv. Yes, I know that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and spiritual center. But it is the secular liberal beach town of Tel Aviv that shows Israel's most appealing face.

Jerusalem is black and white. Jews here. Arabs there. Secular here. Religious there. Jews don't go to East Jerusalem, Arabs don't go to West Jerusalem. Two cities divided by impenetrable invisible walls. The tension in the air is palpable (except in the lovely upscale Jewish neighborhoods).

Tel Aviv, in all its rich color, is what Zionism is all about. It is a Jewish city (built in the twentieth century by and for Jews) adjacent to the wonderful, ancient Arab, and now mixed, town of Jaffa. It abuts the Mediterranean and is a place one goes to escape the Arab-Israeli conflict, unlike Jerusalem that is at the heart of it. Jerusalem--with its beautiful vistas built long after Jews left for the Diaspora--would be a gorgeous and fascinating city even if the Jews had never returned to Palestine after 1,900 years. Tel Aviv exists because they did return.

With its beaches, bars, art galleries, theaters, high-fashion, and the liveliest "outest" gay scene east of San Francisco, T-A is often criticized as a "bubble" because it provides the illusion that it is possible to escape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while in the heart of Israel. It is an illusion, but a good one--and the very opposite of the ugly and hopeless reality offered by extremists on both sides.

I understand the contradiction here. I am saying that the best place in Israel is an all-Jewish city rather than a binational city like Jerusalem.

But that is, in fact, what I believe. There is nothing wrong (and plenty right) about a Jewish city, just as there is nothing wrong (and plenty right) about a Jewish country (which the twentieth century taught us is essential to Jewish survival).

But that equation does not apply much, if at all, beyond the Green Line. The settlements and outposts in the West Bank --"legal" and "illegal"--are essential only to prevent Palestinians from having their own national home. That is the prime purpose of the enterprise. As for Jerusalem, which is now divided by walls of hate, it will only become one city when it is shared with the Palestinians.

That is why the two-state solution is critical.

Unfortunately, its condition is also critical, which means that Israel's is too. It does not take a genius to know that time works against Israel. If, God forbid, the land is not divided, it is Israel that will lose (perhaps everything) while the Arabs (the overwhelming majority in the region and, within a few years, the majority in Israel) will win. They can simply wait the Israelis out and watch the incredible Zionist enterprise disappear. Without the two-state solution soon, the one-state solution is unstoppable.

Those of us determined to prevent that from happening, who fight against the policies of the status quo, are the ones entitled to claim the proud label "pro-Israel." Those others, the political apparatchiks, should find themselves a new one, like maybe "political player on Israel issues" because "pro-Israel" most decidedly does not apply.

Being pro-Israel means caring about Israel, even loving it. It does not mean using it as an excuse for power brokering and suppressing dissident voices.

Israel is more than its most strident supporters here seem to understand. If they understood how much more, they might be less cavalier about advancing policies that jeopardize its prospects for survival.

To read more: go to www.israelpolicyforum.org

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