In the Diaspora: How not to sell Israel to American Jews

It's easy to invoke divinity as the rationale for colonization, from the safety of Teaneck.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
Sometime between the humous-making lessons and the tasting session for Israeli wines, I picked my way into the JCC on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The lobby was thronged, busier even than during nursery-school drop-off, with the audience listening to Rafi Malkiel's jazz quintet. Even though my destination was a treadmill in the fourth-floor fitness center, I stayed for the last few songs of the set. Meanwhile, across the Hudson River in the suburb of Teaneck, New Jersey, an Orthodox synagogue was hosting a "real estate fair" intended to persuade American Jews to invest in homes in the occupied territories. The sales pitch attracted not only several hundred prospective buyers but several dozen picketers as well. In the coincidence of these two events on February 25 - one the JCC's "Israel Non-Stop Festival," the other a "real-estate fair" sponsored by the Amana Settlement Movement - I could see the best and worst possible ways to represent Israel to American Jewry. Here, with a vengeance, was the relentless debate over hasbara, over how best to advocate for Israel in the US. Born in 1955, I grew up in the era when Israel portrayed itself as a matter of obligation for us golus Yids, the Zionist castor oil we were compelled to swallow for our communal health. We heard the fund-raising pitches at High Holy Day services; we bought or received the trees for bar mitzva presents; we had only the barest, sketchiest sense of Israel as a living, breathing, contentious, artistic, vibrant actually-existing place, rather than as the repository of our distant responsibility and guilt. For precisely such reasons, I waited into my 40s before making a trip there, and the revelatory shock was Israel in all its stirring everyday-ness - watching election returns in Aroma, picking up a hitching soldier in the Jordan Valley, renewing acquaintances with a high-school classmate from New Jersey who'd made aliya 20 years earlier. As I returned repeatedly to Israel during the Aksa intifada, I came to believe that the insistent resilience of the society was the secret to its survival. ALAS, TOO little of the plucky, witty, mordant, lusty side of Israel makes it to American shores. Which is precisely why I was so delighted to encounter the JCC's recent festival with its array of food, film, music, theater and literature, bringing here such figures as Yael Hedaya, Haim Yavin and Ofra Henig. This festival conveyed the country I had learned to appreciate through Yehuda Poliker's songs and Rak B'Yisrael's satire and Orly Castel Bloom's novels, a place secure enough to be irreverent, edgy, self-critical. It is exactly the kind of Israel that might well intrigue the legions of American Jews who are otherwise disconnected from and indifferent to the Jewish state. Years ago, when the birthright israel program began, I counted myself as a very public skeptic. I doubted the underlying premise that young American Jews would go to Israel if only the trip were free; a lack of disposable income is not exactly our collective malady. But I stand corrected. The groundswell of interest in birthright attests to some inchoate longing, some ineffable yearning for exposure to Israel, and while the program has its elements of covert indoctrination, it also has wisely trusted Israel unvarnished to be its own best advertisement. The housing fair for the settlements, unfortunately, typifies the way the most recalcitrant strain of American Jewry has cornered the market on what too often passes for Zionism. I could respect, even in disagreement, the commitment of American Jews to put their belief in Greater Israel on the line by actually living in the occupied territories themselves. The real-estate extravaganza hosted by the B'nai Yeshurun synagogue (most definitely not to be confused with the dovish B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan) laid bare a far more cynical approach. The Amana movement was selling would-be customers on the concept of buying a home in the West Bank simply so it could be rented to a settler family already there. And, as The Jerusalem Post reported in early February, at least seven of the settlements being promoted "are outside the boundaries of the security fence" and also "outside of the settlement blocs which Israel assumes it will retain in a final-status agreement." How easy it is to play the territorial maximalist, to invoke divinity as the rationale for colonization, from the safety of Teaneck. I wonder how many of the prospective settlement landlords would be ready to lose a child on the front lines of an Israeli war, as the peace-camp novelist David Grossman did last summer. How much more secure it is just to buy a table at the Hebron Fund's annual dinner in a Manhattan hotel. If the face of Israel to American Jews is the face of settlement beyond the separation barrier deep into the West Bank - not settlement in the Negev or Galilee, which could enjoy across-the-board support - then the prophecy indeed will fulfill itself. Zionism will become the province of only those who define it most stridently and most controversially. Zionism will become tantamount to Eretz Yisrael rather than Medinat Yisrael. And that is a dilemma for America Jewry just as surely as for its Israel brethren. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.