In recent years, the conversation between Israel and the Jewish community in the Diaspora has become increasingly strained. This is particularly true for the United States, meaning the two largest Jewish communities in the world have difficulty agreeing on many issues. At times of crisis, the discussion becomes even more toxic.
We see numerous headlines asking, “Can American and Israeli Jews can stay together as one people?” or asserting, “As Israel turns 70, many young American Jews turn away,” “The gap is growing,” and “Nation-State law angers US Jewish leaders.” Despite claims that Jews abroad are “losing interest in Israel” or alienated by the gap between Israel’s values and their own, there is a clear hunger for more interaction and discussion. The slogan of the 2018 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly was “We need to talk.”
The problem is that the conversation tends to be one-sided and predicated on assumptions that inevitably lead to anger and heartbreak. To reduce the toxic relationship, we need to recalibrate the assumptions. This can be accomplished by community leaders changing the way they talk about Israel so that people can approach the discussion in healthier way.
Here are several suggestions on how to approach Israel:
• See Israelis as equals. “Why are all these Israelis jumping into a discussion about racism in America?” asked a commentator on January 25. “American Jews feel the need to jump into all things Israeli,” someone responded. “Not exactly the same. Can’t remember the last time America got funding from Israel.” In conversations like this, Israel is expected to be the object of discussion, but “Israelis” are not expected to be part of the discussion or to judge America. The conversation is not between equals, but between Americans who see Israel as a place solely to critique.
• Recognize Israeli diversity. Recent discussions in the US have emphasized the importance of Jews of color and black Jews. There is very little recognition that the largest black Jewish community is in Israel, and that Israel is a diverse country with a mosaic of Jews, many of whom have origins in the Middle East and North Africa. To understand Israel is to understand not just elite voices, but also its minorities and marginalized communities. For instance, social justice activism and “tikkun olam” discussions in the US rarely show interest in internal Jewish social justice movements in Israel, or in meeting with and learning about Jewish communities from Israel’s poorest communities.
• Stop the discussion about Israel’s “right” to exist. The colonial era is over, and no one outside Israel gets to decide if Israel has a right to exist. The assumption that people abroad will decide for eight million Israelis and millions of Palestinians “what is best,” is based on colonial-era concepts that assume Western states get to draw borders and reorder the world based on their models. A healthy discussion begins by recognizing that Israelis and Palestinians are the only ones who will decide their own future.
• Learn some Hebrew. The assumption that every discussion about Israel will take place in English is predicated on ignoring the vast majority of voices in Israel, and creates a lopsided discussion. To understand Israel, like understanding any country, language is key. Holding endless debates about “what is best for Israel” without speaking Hebrew or listening to Israelis, is a direct line to non-conversations.
• Approach Israel with curiosity and respect. Too often, the same respect afforded other cultures, whether traveling to Peru, Turkey or Kenya, is discarded when it comes to Israel. Israel is a complex, multi-layered country. It is not just what its government policy is, and not just what one reads in Western newspapers. Approach Israel with curiosity, an eagerness to learn, and an open mind, not as a place “I already know everything about.” A healthy discussion begins with mutual respect.