What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel

May 17, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


Sometimes, the things we talk about are not really what we are talking about. It could be mundane: a spouse, let’s say, neglects to unload the dishwasher. The ensuing argument is not just about the dishes, but about the division of household responsibilities, or about assumptions regarding gender, or maybe even about one spouse’s unspoken struggle with professional direction. The point is not that the dishwasher argument doesn’t exist – the dishes are not imagined. The point, as taught in Pastoral Counseling 101, is that our hypothetical couple would do well to also address the unspoken issues lurking beneath the surface.

And what is true for our households is also true for much bigger conversations. Political debates regarding tax policy are not just about balancing budgets; they are about wealth distribution, fighting poverty, or racial justice. The Reagan-era debates over military funding were not just about defense spending; they were about whether our country had learned the lessons of Vietnam. Arguments about our president are not just about one individual; they are about the values, mission, and direction of our country.

The same thesis holds for the Jewish community. The story of the half-Israelite blasphemer thrown out of the Israelite camp at the end of our Torah reading is not just about heterodox views; it is about whether the Israelites were willing to countenance individuals of heterogenous origins. You may recall Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” – where the main characters speculate who among their non-Jewish friends would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust – a short story bringing into relief a host of unspoken Jewish insecurities about living in a non-Jewish world.

My favorite example is the subject about which I wrote my doctoral thesis. The great Jewish debates of the 1950s and ’60s revolved around the subject of revelation – the question of Torah mi-sinai – whether the Torah is or isn’t divine. Magazine articles were written, books published, movements formed, rabbis hired and fired – all questioning whether God did or didn’t write the Torah. Given that the substance of these debates – biblical criticism, Darwin, etc. – had been around for centuries, it is fair to ask why Jews were litigating the issue yet again. My answer was that the issue of revelation was code for other transformations: a generation of Jews entering universities, Jewish engagement with Protestant biblical theology, the rise of Evangelicism, and so much more. But most of all, the debates reflected a shell-shocked post-Holocaust Jewry grappling with that which, in Will Herberg’s words, “brought man to the brink of the abyss.” These Jews weren’t just arguing over whether God did or didn’t write the Torah. These Jews were arguing over “Where was God in Auschwitz?” and can we still believe in that God? No different than any other person or people, Jews spend much time talking about one thing when they are really talking about different and sometimes deeper things.

These days, Jews are no longer debating “Who wrote the Bible?” or whether the Exodus did or did not happen. Nor, for that matter, are we discussing whether we should or shouldn’t drive to synagogue on Shabbat or other such debates of yesteryear. Today, our conversations and arguments revolve around one subject, one place, one word: Israel. Israel is what brings us together and tears us apart. We advocate to keep Israel and our relationship with Israel strong, we are anxiety-ridden at signs of the relationship withering. We fear for our children’s experience with BDS on campus, and we hope that they sign up for Birthright. The labels that define our tribes are no longer about belief or Jewish observance: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. They are about our views on Israel: AIPAC, JStreet, and the rest of the alphabet soup of the Jewish world.

Across the spectrum, who you are as a Jew is measured by way of your perceived proximity to Israel, often with unseemly results. A Jew openly critical of Israel is labeled a self-hating Jew; a Jew who is supportive of the Israeli government is labeled a colonialist oppressor. We call for vigilance against those on the left trafficking in anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic tropes, as well as against populist nationalists on the right oddly aligned with a strong Israel. I could go on, but the point is one and the same. We talk a whole lot about Israel – a strange state of affairs given that we do not live there, vote there, pay taxes, or serve in Israel’s military. We are not Israeli citizens. And yet Israel has become the organizing principle, the civil religion, and sometimes, the actual religion of American Jewry. Years from now, when some industrious doctoral student writes a thesis on the present-day North American Jewish community, it will be the debates over Israel, more than any other topic, that will be shown to be the dominant issue of our era.

Let’s put my theory to a test. If, when we talk about Israel, we are actually talking about something else, what is that something else we are talking about? In other words, if Israel is the Rorschach test for contemporary American Jewry – revealing our hopes, fears, foibles, and fissures – what are those conversations that we are not having, that we need to have, that sit beneath the surface.

First and foremost, to live in the presence of the State of Israel, but not in Israel, reminds us of the choice we in this room have made not only of where we live, but of how to define our Jewish lives. When we talk about Israel, we are not just talking about Israel; we are talking about a Jewish community that defines its existence in a manner fundamentally different than we do. Israeli Jews are defined by physical borders and national identity. American Jewry is defined by religious borders: the communities we join, the practices we observe, and who we marry. Their border incursions come from Lebanon and Gaza, ours from intermarriage. At eighteen, our children go off to campus to engage in liberal arts and universal values. At eighteen, their children go off to serve in the army and defend a nation. American Jewish identity is a matter of choice and volition; Israeli identity is a matter of necessity and self-preservation. As Golda Meir explained to Joe Biden in the nervous hours before the Yom Kippur war: “Don’t worry, we have a secret weapon against the Arabs: We have no place to go.” Israelis don’t have a place to go; American Jews do – they can assimilate. I am not judging here, simply noting the emergence of two different Jewish communities, animated by different concerns, contexts, and senses of mission. For American Jews to talk about Israel (or, for that matter, Israeli Jews to talk about American Jewry – a sermon for another day) is to put up a lens or more precisely, a mirror, to our own Jewish identities, bringing our strengths, weaknesses, and reality to the fore.

Second, I think our arguments over Israel are not about Israel but about Jewish power. For two thousand years, the Jewish story has been one of exile and second-class citizenship, thus explaining our people’s historic alliance with progressive politics and the plight of the needy and oppressed. And now, lo and behold, there is a Jewish state in possession of great power. Jewish sovereignty is cause for celebration; we have certainly paid the price for its historic absence. And yet, American Jews squirm when we see that power used in ways that we think contradicts the liberal Torah upon which we have been raised. There may have been a time when the idealized Ari Ben Canaan/kibbutznik image of Israel sat comfortably alongside the liberal politics of American Jewry, but that time has long passed. Politically, religiously, and militarily, Israel has shifted right, understandably prioritizing its own self-preservation, even as North American Jewry continues its liberal universalist lean. Like two siblings born of the same household who meet years later to find they have very little to say to each other, so too North American and Israeli Jewry. Again, my aim is not to point fingers; this is not about right or wrong. It is simply to point out that when American Jewry calls foul over the chief rabbinate or the squandering of the two-state solution or the chipping away of Israel as a democracy, it is about those things, but it is not just about those things. It is about our effort to sort out what it means to have a relationship with a Jewish state that is perceived to be increasingly at odds with the very values at the core of our own Jewish self-understanding. It is a state of affairs made more awkward by the current bromance between a populist-leaning Israeli prime minister and a pro-Israel American president, concurrent to the co-opting of the Palestinian cause by the American left. There is less and less breathing room for the would-be progressive Jews and Zionists. Discussions on Israel have become proxy for the question of whether a Jew can be concerned with our self-preservation and shared humanity, particularism, and universalism all at the same time.

Third, I think we American Jews talk about Israel because doing so displaces the real elephant in the room, the thing we should be talking about but are not, and that is our Judaism. At some point, for far too many Jews, support for Israel became a substitute for Judaism. It is easier to write a check than it is to keep yourself and your children home on Friday night to light Shabbat candles. We are more willing to take a day off work for an AIPAC conference than we would for Shavuot. We are more at home discussing the relative merits of the Iran deal and what grades of plutonium can be weaponized than we are opening a siddur. And if it were just the case that our Israel engagement was some sort of compensatory act for a paper-thin American Jewish identity, that would be wake-up call enough. But it is far worse. The name calling, the self-destructive take-down politics of American Jewry – from the right and the left – reflects the fact it is easier to call someone out on their position on Israel that it is to come face to face with the at-risk Jewish identity of your children and grandchildren. Nine times out of ten, the people who write me nasty emails on the subject of Israel (from both sides) are not the ones in shul, on committees, and supportive of the synagogue. Were those individuals to spend less time picking people off and more time building Jewish identity; less of their resources supporting the extremes of the Israel debate and more making Jewish day school, camp, and synagogue life affordable; less time forwarding emails and more time forwarding Torah; not only would American Jewry be in better shape, but our relationship with Israel would be as well. Why do American Jews talk about Israel so much? Because we would rather do that than turn the lens on the endangered condition of our own Judaism.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me be clear about what I am and am not saying. I am not suggesting for a second that American Jewry should not be engaged with Israel. As I have said from this pulpit many times: to be an American Jew and not be engaged with Israel is to abdicate the present-day demands of Jewish identity. We all need to support the work of Israel advocacy to the degree we are able. I am also not saying that the problems facing our relationship with Israel are imagined. The dishwasher still needs to be unloaded. I remain deeply concerned with matters of religious pluralism in Israel, with the future of Israeli democracy, the fate of the two-state solution, all the more so with the soon-to-be-released American peace plan. These are real conversations and arguments, not imagined. My point is simply to give voice to the fact that these conversations are not just about Israel. They are about us, and we do ourselves, Israel, and our relationship a disservice to brush that fact under the rug. Like any relationship in need of continuing care, we need to pause and consider the relationship in its fullness, to see the forest apart from the trees, and separate the symptoms from the underlying condition.

Seventy-one years ago this month the State of Israel was founded. It is the most public manifestation of Jewish identity in our time, representing our collective hopes and dreams even as it is just doing its level best to figure itself out. We share a history and peoplehood, even as we choose not to exercise the option to live there. Our souls and destiny are bound together, even as we realize we are not them and they are not us. There is a lot of there there, and a lot still left to unpack. Maybe that is the best gift we can give our relationship with Israel this year: less name-calling and more dialogue, more effort to understand and be understood. In other words, to talk about what we really need to talk about. It’s not everything, but it is something, and frankly, the relationship is just too important to have it any other way.