Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Discussing Israel in San Francisco: Staying on a very narrow bridge

San Francisco…The inspiration for Arik Einstein and Scott McKenzie; an unplugged laid-back city of rolling hills, calm water and fantastic wine; where environmental awareness and recycling is all the rage, yet car-pools are defined as only two people, (and even then the lane is mostly empty).

For the past nine days, Eran and I have engaged with dozens of people across the political spectrum within the Jewish community here, in order to better understand the dynamics of the debate surrounding Israel.

Some of our meetings haven’t been easy. Many we spoke to rejected our suggestion that Israel’s legitimacy would be strengthened by ‘widening the pro-Israel tent’ to include any individual willing to take a strong stand against delegitimization of Israel (denying the Jewish people’s right to self determination), even if that person has strong criticism of specific government policies.

Between meetings, I popped into one of the many San Francisco bookstores, treating myself (if that’s the right word in this context) to Avrum Burg’s controversial book – The Holocaust is Over – We must Rise from its Ashes.

Burg’s book isn’t an easy read, brimming as it is with criticism of the Israeli / Zionist establishment – of how nationalism hasn’t been good for the Jews, and how Zionism wrongly replaced the exilic spiritual Jew but with the militaristic Sabra.

Yet despite deep disagreements which much of his thesis, I did identify with some aspects of Burg’s analysis, notably the idea that we remain traumatised by the shadow of the Holocaust, and that this trauma not only negatively affects our ability to trust the international community (we feel that ‘the whole world is against us’), but also creates a paradoxical situation in which citizens of the region’s only superpower continue to feel an existential angst about their future.

In fact, I think the easiest way to understand the opposition towards ‘widening the tent’ on behalf of both the Israeli Government and some within the San Franciscan Jewish community is through Burg's analysis of our fear of Israel's potential destruction.

My most interesting meeting came with Director of Berkeley Hillel, Adam Naftalin Kellman. Berkeley is renowned as a historic center of anti-establishment radicalism, and last year experienced an attempt by the Student Council to pass a motion divesting from Israel. In this context, Adam finds himself between proverbial rocks and hard places – between radical students pushing the narrative of Israel as an apartheid state, self defined progressive Jewish students highly critical of Israeli policies, and ‘whole-hearted Zionists’ promoting the line of ‘support Israel warts and all’.

Amongst this sea, Adam discussed his wish for the students to create a deep, meaningful, significant and mature relationship with Israel, even if that includes criticism of its policies.

However the question he couldn’t answer was how to facilitate such a process without simultaneously strengthening those voices undermining the country’s existence.

I also can’t answer this question, but I believe the issue doesn’t just apply to discussing Israel at Berkeley, but is pertinent to all sensitive, thoughtful, Israel supporters today.

How can we maintain context when engaging with the complexity that is modern day Israel?

How can we encourage nuance on an issue known for facilitating radicalism, or discuss intricacies when others deal in slogans?

How can we criticize without worrying that we are betraying our people, or that our criticism will strengthen the current Tsunami that sometimes undermines the country’s existence?

And how can unease regarding specific Government policies be harnessed towards constructive, rather than destructive ends?

While I'm still struggling with this, the challenge reminded me of part of Obama’s book - ‘Dreams of my Father’ - in which he describes his first trip to Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

“For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched…

You could read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate….

Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.”

Reading Obama’s description of his feelings, thoughts and fears, I can’t help wondering what our ‘freedom from being watched’ might look like, where our ‘Kenya’ might be…

Is there a place where we can be liberated from past historical trauma to 'ponder the corruption' of some aspects of the Israeli heart, where we can discover our own feeling towards our homeland...where we can just ‘be ourselves’?

There isn't a clear answer, but this is clear:

That if we fail in this challenge, we won’t just be pushing too many committed yet critical Jews away from Israel all together.

We will also be doing a disservice to our own tradition that values discussion, debate and disagreement.


DrMike said...

Calev-- very thoughtful post. One problem that I am certain you noted here in the Bay Area, as well as elsewhere, is groups that claim only to be engaging in "legitimate criticism" while at the same time allying with and endorsing those who delegitimize Israel.
The paradigm for this is Jewish Voice for Peace, which stands at public demonstrations with groups cheering on Hamas and Hezbollah, which endorses anti-Zionist speakers who draw equivalence between Auchwitz and Gaza, and which supports BDS activities-- all the while claiming that this is just criticism of Israeli policies.
Those are the voices that have chosen to exclude themselves from our community's tent. Can we bring in critical voices that are NOT mere sock puppets for those who delegitimize Israel? And do it without strengthening that latter group?

You have identified the challenge quite well. I look forward to hearing your possible solutions!

Calev said...


I think both the 'right' and the 'left' (to use general terms whose meanings arent clear) have challenges.

The 'right' have to get used to changing the definition of what being pro-Israel means

The 'left' meanwhile have to take a clear stand against delegitimization - whether that means publicly stating its support for the Jewish people's right to self determination...

that would atleast be a start...

Avram said...

Interesting piece Calev. I will refrain from adding my comments for fear of being wrongly portrayed as anti-Calev! ;)