If you cancel Israel, you hurt yourself, not Israel

Hundreds of thousands of happy Birthright and MASA and gap-year student and tourists have taught that if you cancel Israel, you hurt yourself, not Israel.

BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS attend a Taglit-Birthright event in Jerusalem in 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS attend a Taglit-Birthright event in Jerusalem in 2018.
Last week, a student writing in the Forward wrote, “Israel will lose my entire generation if it goes ahead with annexation.” Normally, I’d scoff. I’m an optimist. I’ve seen the thrill in the most alienated of Jews’ eyes when they land at Ben-Gurion Airport with their Birthright trip – and join their people’s glorious journey in our historic homeland.
Alas, COVID-19 has emptied the planes, idled the tour buses, frozen the entire Israel touring phenomenon. Even more ominous, America’s cancel-culture frenzy could make many young Jews cancel Israel – not just their Israel trips.
Hundreds of thousands of happy Birthright and MASA and gap-year student and tourists have taught that if you cancel Israel, you hurt yourself, not Israel.
The miraculous but crude Promised Land of the 1950s and 1960s has become more livable, yet more controversial. Back then it was easy for American Jews to love Israel from afar while disliking it up close. Today, it’s easier to love Israel from up close while disliking it from afar.
In A Passion for Israel, his charming new book detailing his 14 Sar-El stints since 2006, volunteering to clean, paint, and organize Israeli army bases, the North Carolina-based attorney Mark Werner writes after being bombed by Hamas, “If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no pacifists in bomb shelters.”
Werner’s making an ideological insight not a political statement. Being there, experiencing something in real time, provides a perspective and personal investment you can’t get long-distance.
Clearly, there’s a moral imperative today to reckon with systemic racism.
But social justice totalitarians treat the world as binary, pitting the righteous who hate Trump against the evil-doers who love him, anti-racists against racists, those who “get” that black lives matter against those who don’t get it.
In that either-or world with no deviations or doubts, reinforced by social-media bullying, it’s easier to cancel Israel as a good, woke progressive or risk being canceled yourself.
Finally, add some Americans Jews’ fury over the mere thought of annexation, compounded by Big Lies about Israel militarizing America’s police – and you’ve got a perfect anti-Israel storm threatening many American Jews’ bond with Israel.
A few voices in Black Lives Matter are not just anti-Israel but antisemitic. Alas, too many Jews fear calling out this bigotry.
The world is too complex to be reduced to the totalitarian packaged deals being peddled about America, about Israel, and yes, about combating racism. It’s chilling to read how so many young Americans talk politics today, condescendingly judging whether their parents “understand” or “get it,” rejecting any parental wisdom.
Donald Trump and his Confederacy of Dunces are also allergic to nuance. Many of Donald’s “dunces” are worse – cynics – negating the bridge-building, idealism, liberalism and tolerance that truly made America great for whatever policy payoffs their piggish president delivers. So, beware the absolutists: Neither Right nor Left get it absolutely right.
If Israel becomes a Left-Right issue, the complex truths are lost and we all lose. It’s lopsided: They attack with slogans, we defend with paragraphs. Rather than canceling Israel, cancel the false assumptions about Israel – and your fear of defending Israel.
Consider this four-pronged educational plan – nurtured by talking and learning with young people not talking at and lecturing them:
• First, existentially, advocate a multi-dimensional, messy worldview, not a doctrinaire one demanding total loyalty, “without caveat or qualification,” in the words of one “covenant” that Jewish organizations are being pressured to sign. Constructive openness requires a learner’s humility, not the activist’s arrogance, liberating us to learn from one another, even if we disagree.
• Second, tactically, embrace true intersectionality, uniting all who suffer from bigotry against all forms of bigotry, including Jew-hatred. Rather than picking arbitrary targets reinforced by political bullying, repudiating all hatred can be mutually reinforcing. Blacks and Jews should learn from one another about fighting racism and antisemitism, recognizing commonalities without claiming equivalence or falling into that narcissistic competition asking “Who suffered most?”
• Third, historically, rather than knocking everything down, learn how earlier Americans and Zionists built up themselves and their respective countries. Don’t just define Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson by their flaws; explore the amazing ideals they unleashed which helped reform America, despite their flaws.
Trashing the past trashes the ideas and ideals which were the catalysts for the very change so many seek. Rather than asking accusingly “Do you get it?” we all benefit by asking, “How did we get here, what did we do right, what did we do wrong?” and “What can we learn from earlier experiences in reform, in uplift, in repairing the world?”
• Finally, ideologically, focus on identity-building, not virtue-shaming. Don’t politicize everything about Israel, about Zionism, about life. Israel, our homeland, is our identity-building platform, the stage on which so many of our stories and heroes, ideas and values, played out. This detoxifies the conversation and deepens it.
Yes, see “the other” better, but first, let’s look at ourselves in the mirror, taking proper pride in the good we and our people have accomplished while being self-critical enough to avoid self-satisfaction, and continue working to improve ourselves and our world.
In short, genuine pluralism requires self-respect, not self-hatred, which builds mutual respect and zero tolerance for hatred. And a genuine partnership between Israel and Diaspora isn’t about constantly putting Israel on probation, threatening to jump ship if the political seas turn stormy. Instead, it’s a “life sentence,” a lifelong, existential commitment to appreciate the good and fix the bad.
The writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history. His next book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, will be published in September.