We recently hosted a Shabbat dinner for some Christians visiting Jerusalem. Many described the Israel they encountered so movingly, so tearfully, that we choked up too. They hailed Israel’s resilience and heroism, Israel’s creativity and democracy, Israelis’ warmth and values. A week earlier, Orthodox Jews hosted me in Skokie, Illinois.
They too basked in the Israeli miracle, gushing about their many trips to and fro, their children studying and living there.
Unfortunately, most conversations with my liberal friends – even Zionists – start with their latest disappointment with Israel or The New York Times’
latest indictment. If TDS means Trump Derangement Syndrome, obsessing about US President Donald Trump’s constant outrages, are American Jewish critics suffering from BDS, or Bibi Derangement Syndrome? Israel, of course, isn’t perfect. But this BDS also lacks proportion, exaggerating Israel’s imperfections – and encouraging a kind of perma-outrage. This BDS doesn’t delegitimize Israel – it just treats today’s greatest collective Jewish adventure as one big headache. If Jewish conservatives too often use that other BDS – the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – to squelch critical conversations we need about Israel, this BDS sours equally important celebrations.
BDS is more toxic than TDS. Most American Jews with TDS – and PHTSD, Post-Hillary Traumatic Stress Disorder – still love America. Yet while instinctively distinguishing between their Americanism and their Trumpophobia, many aren’t equally loyal to Israel.
Ethics of the Fathers distinguished between loves that depend on something, say, behaving nicely or being popular, versus true, transcendent, David-and-Jonathan, through-thick-or-thin love. Only “a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases,” our rabbis taught. American Jewish liberals love America unconditionally.
Similarly, most Israeli liberals – who may be even more anti-Netanyahu – don’t have the luxury of giving up on their country – or saying “Israel really ain’t a very good idea,” as one J Street co-founder, Daniel Levy, infamously said.
BDS risks not only poisoning American Jewish feelings toward Israel, it often leads sufferers to escalate conflicts unnecessarily. Last week, some Jewish leaders politicized an internal educational decision Birthright Israel made and which Haaretz
Before checking with Birthright colleagues, some Jewish leaders attacked the policy as reflecting a “narrowing” of Birthright’s political agenda – also without proof. This behavior reflects a new, virulent BDS strain – KDS, Kotel Derangement Syndrome. Conservative and Reform rabbis, in particular, justifiably frustrated by the government’s stonewalling about the Western Wall, are only seeing Israel through the prism of the government’s Kotel betrayal. Those frustrations fed some of the unfair attacks.
A newly-widowed cousin starts every morning noting something she is grateful for, practicing positivity. Let’s build toward Israel’s 70th anniversary by cataloging expressions of Zionist gratitude. Start by seeing Israel through my eyes day by day.
Last week began with the exciting news that close friends had become grandparents. This Israeli baby has four grandparents who made aliya from three different countries. Sunday, I attended a birthday celebration for a 73-year-old whose gritty idealism evokes the founders’ generation – and is now activating the important local crusade to save Emek Refaim Street from a train that won’t fit physically or logically. These activists, most of whom are Israeli-born (contrary to stereotypes), are pushing the cheaper, safer, reasonable alternative of tunneling under the Train-Tracks Park nearby.
The next day, I visited the Jewish Agency meetings in Jerusalem, meeting with a string of passionate Zionist activists and educators. We brainstormed about how to advance the Zionist conversation, how to inspire people to celebrate this upcoming 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth, with substantive Zionist salons studying Zionist texts, not just eating blue-and-white cookies.
On Tuesday, my wife and I drove to Beersheba’s outskirts.
There we watched a kind of magic that occurs repeatedly throughout the Jewish state. This time, our friend Danny Hakim turned the Centennial Celebration of Anzac, Australia’s Liberation of Beersheba, into a charity-raising, community-building and Israel-Australia bridge-building event: tacking on a two-day 100-kilometer bicycle ride that attracted 200 riders, almost half from Australia and New Zealand. The ride raised money for Kids Kicking Cancer, which he heads – empowering kids with cancer through martial arts – and Shekel, helping kids with special needs live normative lives.
“These little heroes share the same values as the heroic ANZACs of one hundred years ago,” Hakim observed: “Courage, Sacrifice, Perseverance and Mateship.”
Such idealism is woven into Israel’s “fabric,” said a business acquaintance turned fast friend we made on Wednesday. It’s something we who are lucky enough to live in Israel witness regularly, especially among our kooky community of olim-by-choice from the wealthy West.
Forty years ago, the liberal Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that, increasingly, barraged by attacks, “Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most.
Israel would be regretted.” Indeed, too many Jewish liberals have lost their capacity to applaud Israel’s everyday miracles as British Prime Minister Theresa May did during Balfour Day Celebrations. “Israel is the true start-up nation and we are proud to be your partner,” she proclaimed, toasting this “most extraordinary country.”
A healthy democracy needs healthy critiques from Left and Right. But a healthy democracy also needs passionate patriots from left and right, regardless of who is in power. I offer the same Rx for both forms of BDS: exposure to Israel, with its highs and lows, its idealism and cynicism, its glory and complexity. Fair, honest encounters with Israel and Israelis will fill every reasonable critic’s notebooks with many delights to cherish – and some problems to fix.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.