Sharing the good news about Israel

Overseas Jews are hungry to hear it. And if we don’t tell them, who will?

Limmud FSU Belarus conference  (photo credit: COURTESY OF LIMMUD FSU)
Limmud FSU Belarus conference
(photo credit: COURTESY OF LIMMUD FSU)
Last week, I attended my first-ever Limmud conference in England, where I spent a significant chunk of time talking about why Israel is an admirable country and a force for good in the world. As regular readers will know, that’s not my standard practice; usually, I write about all the ways in which Israel still falls short of my aspirations. But my Limmud experience convinced me that talking about Israel’s good points is something all Israelis need to do far more often. There are Jews overseas – and presumably non-Jews as well – who still want to love Israel, and crave reassurance that this is a reasonable thing to do. And if Israelis don’t give it to them, who will?
Granted, there’s a reason why Israelis spend so much time dwelling on Israel’s problems: It’s one of the things that makes this country great. Israel could never have achieved what it has over the last 66 years if Israelis were content to rest on their laurels; it’s precisely because Israelis always want to make things better – even when they’re already pretty good – that Israel in fact keeps becoming better in all kinds of ways. Complaining about a problem obviously doesn’t solve it, but the fact that Israeli public discourse focuses relentlessly on identify problems, drawing attention to them and discussing possible solutions does generate public pressure for improvement.
Nevertheless, this focus on the negative has a serious downside. I first realized this many years ago, when some friends and I were sitting around a Shabbat table indulging in the favorite Israeli pastime of griping about our country. The eldest of my friends’ children, who was perhaps 10 or 12 at the time, had heard many similar conversations. And suddenly she burst out, “Why do we have to live in such a horrible country?”
Shocked, we all rushed to assure her Israel was actually a wonderful country, and the only place we’d ever want to live. But how could she have known that, when all her life she’d heard us talk instead about Israel’s shortcomings?
And this is doubly true for overseas Jews. Unlike my friends’ child, who had ample opportunity to discover Israel’s good points for herself as she grew older, most diaspora Jews know only what they hear. And because we take Israel’s strengths so for granted that we rarely feel a need to talk about them, what they hear from us is mostly negative.
This was driven home to me by the first question I received after one of my Limmud talks. Here, roughly, is what this conference-goer said: “I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say thank you. All the news we hear from Israel is so depressing, and it was so encouraging to hear all the good things you told us!” And others who attended my presentations made similar comments.
That British Jews apparently aren’t getting much good news about Israel from their own leaders strikes me as a failure of the UK’s Jewish leadership. A Jewish leader’s job includes reminding community members of why they should care about the world’s only Jewish state, even when this means swimming against the tide. So especially now, when Israel is unfashionable, Diaspora Jewish leaders should try harder to seek out and share encouraging news from Israel.
Nevertheless, the primary responsibility is Israel’s. Even the most committed Diaspora Jews, those who follow news from Israel closely and visit here regularly, don’t know as much about Israel as Israelis do. And we need to find ways to share all the good things we know.
Perhaps, for instance, Israeli embassies should feature a daily “good news from Israel” section on their websites and social media accounts, so rabbis and educators would at least know where to find such information. Perhaps English-language Israeli papers and overseas Jewish papers should similarly feature a “good news” section on their websites and social media accounts. The question of “how” is really one for marketing and public relations experts, which I’m not.
What I do know, however, is that this is urgent, and that it needs to be proactive: We can’t rely on people seeking out good news on their own. Granted, my lectures weren’t the ideal test; I’m a little-known and not very dynamic speaker. Yet the fact remains that the people hungry enough for good news about Israel to risk attending my talks, simply because they did promise such news, were almost exclusively people over 50. The hundreds of younger people attending Limmud were far more likely to frequent lectures promising criticism of Israel.
And contrary to the accepted wisdom, this is not because of their liberal sensibilities; there’s plenty for liberals to love about Israel. Like the new study showing that 65% of Israeli Arabs are proud to be Israeli, and they trust the Israel Police (!) more than their own political and religious leaders. Or like most of what I discussed in my lectures, ranging from the significant narrowing of Jewish-Arab educational gaps over the last 15 years to Israel’s world leadership in water recycling.
Rather, it’s because younger people have never been given such information, and therefore don’t already love Israel enough to actively seek out more, as their parents and grandparents do. When they are told it, as an impressive experiment this summer in Massachusetts proved, their attitudes change.
For the idea that love of Israel can be inculcated via a “critical” approach is fatuous. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with loving Israel critically; Israelis themselves do so, which is precisely why they gripe about their country so much. But before you can love anything “critically,” you first have to love it.
And aside from their children, people don’t usually love anything without reason. Not their spouses, not their friends, and not Israel. To love something, one must first believe that despite the inevitable imperfections, it has attributes worthy of being loved.
There are many good reasons to love Israel, not least its constant efforts to correct its flaws. But too many overseas Jews no longer know what they are. And if we don’t tell them, who will?
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.