Is Tikkun Olam the right Jewish national narrative?

Tikkun olam is an important piece of our national story, but we should not forget the core of the Jewish people’s narrative – an ancient nation that returned to its historic homeland.

Volunteers giving back to the community on Good Deeds Day (photo credit: SIVAN FARAJ)
Volunteers giving back to the community on Good Deeds Day
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAJ)
Why do Jews live in Israel? What is their purpose here? Why not live somewhere else? Why in this specific contested small piece of land?
I ask these questions as I complete my first year as editor of The Jerusalem Post, a job I started immediately after last Passover. I ask since over the last year I have had the opportunity to attend and speak at numerous Jewish conferences on multiple continents and what I have found is that everyone is struggling to give an answer, to create a narrative and to tell a story that will connect Jews – especially young ones – with the State of Israel.
There are those who focus their connection with Israel on the amazing innovation that originates in the Jewish state. The hundreds of multi-national corporations that have established R&D centers in the country alongside its impressive hi-tech exits – like Mobileye’s recent $15 billion sale to Intel – are just some examples.
Israel, according to this narrative, cannot be an immoral place since it is home to the most innovative technologies in the world. It created the flash drive, the chips in your cellphone and autonomous driving. Based on this line of thinking, even if Israel is occasionally embroiled in conflict, its advanced technology can only be the product of an advanced Western society, just like America or the United Kingdom.
Then there are those who focus their connection with Israel on the good Israelis do around the world, the country’s engagement in tikkun olam.
This narrative tells a story of Israeli kindness and generosity. Israel is a state you should support, the argument goes, because it treats wounded Syrians and developed the most innovative drip irrigation used to grow crops in places like India and Rwanda. Israel, according to this line of thinking, cannot be an evil country or an occupier of another people, because it does so much good like dispatching rescue delegations to all corners of the earth after natural disasters.
Israel is after all supposed to be a “Light unto the Nations,” and what better way to do that than to engage in repairing the world.
All of the above is true. Both these narratives provide people with a reason to support Israel and help the country positively brand itself. They help explain why it is an ethical and moral state despite what might be said about it in the corridors of places like the United Nations.
But here is the inherent problem with these narratives: They tell a story that could apply to any other people in the world. Israelis might be focused on doing good, but so are other countries in the world. The fact that Israel might do more per capita, is not a strong enough reason for why a Jewish millennial should feel connected to the Jewish state. This is a generic story that could apply anywhere.
Additionally, Jews did not return to Israel en masse in the 1940s and ’50s because they wanted to engage in tikkun olam. They came to Israel because it was the Jewish homeland and had been so for over 3,000 years.
These narratives miss an important message – Jews are not in the Land of Israel because of drip irrigation and autonomous vehicles. Those inventions were made possible exactly because Jews live as a free people in their historical homeland. Independence and a connection to their land is what enabled Jews to innovate in an unprecedented way.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why innovation and tikkun olam were invented as national narratives. Israel, especially for the last 30 years or so, has become a divisive topic for American Jewry. It is a lightning rod, due to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. To try and keep support up for Israel, we talk about the community service Israelis do and the assistance the country extends to the world.
This problem is particularly acute among Jewish millennials who today are moving further and further away from Judaism and the Jewish state. A recent Pew Research Center report, for example, found that American millennials are the only age demographic in which fewer than half (43%) of its cohort sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. This is a worrisome trend. Ten years ago, a majority of Americans, across all generations, held the same positive views of Israel. That is no longer the case.
But there are many reasons for this. First, these young Jews do not have the same connection their parents or grandparents had with Israel. My parents came of age in the 1950s and ’60s, when the possibility that Israel would be destroyed by its enemies was real. Their parents were immigrants to America and Holocaust survivors. For them, Israel’s mere existence was a miracle.
For today’s youth, this is no longer the case. Israel is an economic powerhouse with 4% growth in 2016 and a record-high GDP. It is a military superpower with challenges but no immediate existential threat. They do not need to worry, as my parents and grandparents did, that Israel will cease to exist.
This problem is compounded by a sense among American youth today that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simple to understand. Israel is powerful; the Palestinians are not. Israel occupied land; the Palestinians didn’t. As a result, it should also be simple to solve. Israel withdraws from the land it conquered, the Palestinians establish a state and there will be peace.
The problem is that this conflict is anything but simple. The reality in the Middle East is far more complex than can be imagined. The 24 years since the Oslo Accords were signed at the White House are proof of that complexity. Adam, a 25-year-old American whom I met last week, is another.
Adam came to Israel from a small town in New Jersey where he was the only Jewish student in his class. He played football and was on the school’s swim team. But after high school he felt something pulling him to Israel. His mother is Jewish, his father Italian. He had read about Israel, watched movies about Israel but had never been there. So, he came and enlisted in the IDF. A few weeks ago, he was discharged after more than two years of combat service in the Paratroop Brigade.
We spoke about the car-ramming attack last Thursday that killed IDF solider Elchai Teharlev near Ofra. Adam said he was recently walking in Jerusalem with an American friend visiting the country. When they got to a traffic light, the friend stood at the corner while Adam instinctively stood a few feet away, safely behind a concrete barrier.
“Why are you all the way over there,” the friend asked Adam, who hadn’t realized that he was doing anything out of the ordinary.
And that is how we get back to tikkun olam. Explaining why Adam stood a few feet away from his friend or why peace is not currently possible is complicated and controversial. Tikkun olam is easy. It can connect youth to Israel and potentially give them a reason to be Zionists, proud Jews and supporters of the Jewish state.
While that is commendable, it cannot be the bottom line. There needs to be more to the Jewish national narrative.
Also, just because millennials might be a challenging demographic doesn’t mean Israel is off the hook. Israel has a responsibility to tell a story and narrative that Jews around the world can connect to.
The problem is that the government sends mixed messages. The prime minister says he wants a two-state solution but then senior ministers in his government say they will never let that happen. The prime minister says he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state but then continues to expand settlements. For a conflict that appears to be simple, this just complicates everything.
But just because something is complicated or controversial doesn’t mean we should shy away from talking about it.
IN 1936, in response to the Arab Revolt in what was then called “Palestine,” the British Mandate appointed a commission led by Lord Peel to assess the cause of the riots. It issued its report a year later and, for the first time, recommended a partition of the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
In his testimony before the Peel Commission, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, asked if any of the panel members remembered the day the Mayflower left port in England.
“How many people were on the boat,” Ben-Gurion asked. “Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?”
In contrast, he said, every Jew in the world knows what day the Jews left Egypt some 3,300 years ago. “He knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten,” Ben-Gurion said.
This Passover is an opportunity to reconnect with the message Ben-Gurion was trying to convey to the Peel Commission more than 80 years ago. The Jewish people is not in Israel without reason. It is there because of the historic link that connects it from the time it left Egypt until today.
Tikkun olam is an important piece of our national story, but we should not forget the core of the Jewish people’s narrative – an ancient nation that returned to its historic homeland and against all odds, not only survived but prospered.
As Ben-Gurion said at the end of his testimony – “That is the nature of the Jewish people.”
Chag Sameach