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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

Solidarity

May 12, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Once again, echoes are wafting over here, of the internal battles in the North American Jewish community over solidarity with Israel. One of the great benefits of fulfilling the Zionist dream and making aliyah is getting out of that particular fray. It is tempting to dismiss the agony of American Jews over this issue as "their" problem -- one from which I am now exempt, having chosen to live with real danger, instead of the "danger" of being badly thought of because of the "lies" of CNN. However, it seems to me that that is a temptation to be avoided, if we really believe that we are all responsible one for another.

Recently, on a trip to the US right in the middle of Israel's re-occupation of the cities of the West Bank, I was asked to address a group of senior citizens on "the situation." This was a mixed group -- Jews and non-Jews, of every political stripe. As the date approached, I realized that I didn't know what to say: I myself believe that the occupation is a moral disaster for us, that our political leadership and the popular mood are too strongly influenced by messianism and racism, that these forces have given rise to ugly behaviors on the part of soldiers. At the same time, I believe that we have a right to a country, that there are forces in the Arab world and in the world at large that seek to deny not only that right, but our right to exist as Jews, that there are Palestinian and other Arab leaders who are not committed to peaceful coexistence, ever. In short, I am ambivalent. I cannot see the Palestinians as an evil empire that justifies any and all behaviors on the part of Israel in the name of "fighting for our lives," but I certainly feel that Israel must fight for its life and the lives of its citizens. So what do you say to those who don't know all the nuances, who want to hear a clear answer? What do you say to those who see the alternatives as either solidarity or betrayal? How do you counteract propaganda?

What I decided to do was to try to convey as much of the complexity as I could, to be honest about my own ambivalence. I talked about historical background (from King David to Balfour -- and McManus -- to 1948 to 1967). And I talked about the divisions within Israeli society. About the difficulty of trying to maintain a state committed to free expression and democracy and equality in a region in which no other state even pays lip service to those values. About the Jews' experiences in the past with betting on the universalism of others. About my belief that despite all that, the Jewish state does have an obligation to a higher moral standard, though not an obligation to commit suicide on behalf of that obligation. About Israel's painful mistakes and imperfections.

The response seemed universally warm and sympathetic. There were a number of good questions of information; there were no hostile or ideologically charged questions at all.

I think that it is not fruitful to try to combat propaganda with propaganda, to try to set white against black in a world that is many shades of gray. Moreover, it seems to me that by admitting that there are two sides, that there is no absolute allocation of right and wrong in the conflict -- at every stage -- we allow those who disagree with us to make the same admission, and move the discussion more into the realm of dialogue and out of the realm of shouting slogans at a mass rally. I guess I think it admirable that American Jews are manning the barricades for us. I only hope that they are not shooting themselves in the foot.

In a cultural setting dominated by sensationalism and sound bites, it seems to me that the best thing we can do for our own cause is not to go with that flow, but to insist on being open and honest, to insist on seeing the complexities instead of being forced by the other side's indefensible oversimplifications into our own indefensible oversimplifications. That of course requires that American Jews themselves become knowledgeable, that they understand the complexities, that they delve into the nuances, into the internal conflicts in Israel, that they climb down from the tree of solidarity in which they have gotten themselves stuck and get to know the issues in depth, so that they can speak out with convincing objectivity and balance.

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