Tank or tent? We need to decide

Israel’s complexity, and the nature of the world’s response to it, is in danger of defeating us.

By ROBBIE GRINGRAS
June 29, 2011 22:00
4 minute read.
Israeli's march with flags (illustrative)

Israel Flag March 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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How can we tell when a fiery piece of theater is “anti-Semitic,” or when it is simply “courageous and challenging”? How do we know a documentary film is “uplifting and inspirational,” or “white-washing propaganda”? How can we differentiate between the dangerous enemy, and the confused kid who could do with reading a book or two? Where is the starry-eyed supporter of all things blueand- white, and where the McCarthyite in the making?

It seems that throughout the Jewish world, nuances are becoming dangerously blurred, while the discourse has grown more polarized. Makom rests in the heart of the Jewish Agency for Israel, working carefully to inspire intelligent and complex learning about the place of Israel in Jewish life. As something of an ideological hybrid (some have called us “a government- funded underground”), we have amassed a large amount of experience in working with integrity while avoiding head-on conflicts.

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Involved in education as we are, our team is delighted to recognize how Israel evokes the heat and commitment of conflict, yet our fear is that the current arguments in the Jewish community are what John Dewey might call “mis-educative,” since they end up putting people off the whole subject. We at Makom would like to suggest a way forward.

It may be that we in the Jewish community have moved a little too far from the source. It may be that some of our arguments are more about Western values refracted through Israel, rather than about Israel itself. Our approach is to look to what Israel says about itself, and what it aspires to be.

When the state was established, the penultimate line of “Hatikva” was rewritten.

Instead of referring to a return to the land of our fathers, the line was altered to define our hope of 2,000 years: “To be a free people in our land.”

It may be that this broad, generative definition of our hope is more useful to us than “a Jewish and democratic state.” The latter construction hints at paradox, feels painfully particularistic, and makes no reference to place. By contrast, the aspiration to be a free people in our land is lyrical, inviting and universal. What else was behind the world’s excitement at the Egyptian uprising, for example, if not the sight of Egyptians fighting to be a free people in their own land? All stripes of Israel-supporter can agree with this statement – and argue within it.



We may not agree on the exact borders of “our Land,” nor may we agree to what extent we must share this land with others, but we do agree that the Jews’ state must be in this Middle Eastern neck of the woods.

We may not agree on our definition of who is a Jew, nor may we agree on the Halacha or its applications, but we can agree that the Jews are a people, and as such deserve self-determination.

Our understandings of “free” will be nuanced, too. Some Zionists cannot understand the liberation movement of the Jewish people without democracy: How can we free the Jewish people to control its own destiny without freeing the Jewish person to do the same? Others will engage in a heated discussion about the morality of enjoying freedom while restricting the freedom of others, while their interlocutors will argue about how it is freedom from terror that should be our most important guide.

WHAT WE are pointing out is that we would still have plenty of room to argue.

Makom is arguing for a communal “tent” rather than a communal “tank.”

In a tank we can be safe, we can fight back against our enemies, but life there is pretty cramped and miserable. A tent, meanwhile, gives us room to talk freely among ourselves, have fun occasionally.

Perhaps equally significant, it can empower us to engage more confidently with those outside the tent.

The sides of this tent can be open for dialogue.

There is clearly no point arguing the complexities of Israel’s immigration policy with someone who does not accept that Israel has the right to decide! There is nothing to be gained discussing the desired borders of the state with someone who does not agree that the Jews have a connection to the land. Yet we can debate the basics: why we regard the Jews as a people, the rights of a people to freedom, and our connection to the land. As long as we keep our eyes on this three-pillared structure, instead of turning our backs to critics, we can face them.

Within Israel and within the Jewish world, we must talk and work at the areas where these different values clash, where our interpretations of these values clash, and where the connection between the values can be strengthened.

This three-pillared tent will allow us to better defend ourselves against the malicious rejecter of Jewish rights in Israel, converse more fruitfully with principled dissenters, and work with those who live inside this fascinating tent of Israel.

The writer is the artist-in-residence with Makom, the place for compelling Israel education, based at the Jewish Agency for Israel. www.makomisrael.org

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