Just returned from accompanying a group of Israeli teens on a visit to their Partnership 2000 partner community. A few observations:
In a large suburban synagogue, we were feted at a festive Friday evening meal before Shabbat services. The dynamic, articulate rabbi spoke to the assembled host families and guest teens at dinner, about the difficulty of maintaining Jewish identity today. I found myself surprised that he did not speak about Israel, or the Israel-Diaspora connection. I wondered if this was because the topic of Israel is problematic, controversial, or irrelevant. I would have expected that the presence of an Israeli delegation would have provided a good opportunity to discuss the various levels of possible relationship between American Jewry and Israel, political, economic, spiritual, intellectual, collective memory, personal... I wondered if the lack of attention to the delegation was an idiosyncratic event, or a symptom of a general difficulty in knowing what to say about Israel and Israelis.
At a reunion of Israel youth program graduates sponsored by the board of Jewish education, there was a panel discussion on current events in Israel. I was struck by the fact that in a politically liberal community, the vast majority of the questions were phrased in such a way as to imply a right-wing take on the Israeli political scene. I guess this is not surprising - after all, the right wing is clearly dominant in the present discourse inside Israel. Indeed, the opposite would have been surprising: when Israel comes across in the media as a victim of terror and betrayal, then the right is vindicated. And when Israel comes across as oppressor, the claims of those who say that the press is biased against us are vindicated. So anyone, here or there, who suggests that Israels policy is mistaken or worse comes across as a traitor in time of war. I got the feeling that American Jews are feeling doubly embattled, and that patriotism, for the United States as well as for Israel, helps rescue them (us?) from the discomfort of any ambivalence, uncertainty, and self-doubt that we might be tempted to feel if we delved into the reality with any diligence.
On the other hand, after a visit to a Holocaust memorial and an Indian reservation, we had a discussion, American host teens and Israeli guests, on minorities, discrimination, and persecution. At one point I asked the American kids who they think is the minority that is the most discriminated against in the United States today. To my surprise, there was general agreement on the Moslems. Given the history of Americas treatment of Native Americans and Afro-Americans and the present residues of suffering caused by that history, this answer proves (to me, at least) the superficiality of the mass medias treatment of social issues. It seems to me that in these kids minds, a few widely reported, nasty episodes of discriminatory behavior and comments in the past few months have displaced any knowledge they might have had of the massive and long-term racism that continues to corrode American democracy.
We visited a communal Holocaust memorial. Once again I was confronted by photographs of Jews - naked, humiliated, suffering, dead - photographs taken by Nazis, then enlarged by us, and etched in steel for all the world to see; nowhere to hide, no shame, no modesty, no respect for the humanity or privacy of the victims. And I wondered why we find it necessary to participate in the brutalization that the Holocaust represents as our way of memorializing it; shouldnt we be offering an alternative? Shouldnt our memorials emphasize our values instead of theirs?
Reflecting on these experiences, as we cruised residential streets marveling at the elaborate Christmas lights, I realized how difficult it is to define and enrich and preserve Jewish identity in the identity marketplace of 21st century western democracy. So maybe the rabbi was right in his choice of topic. To talk about Israel-Diaspora partnership would be an easy cop-out. To examine how our collective memories and present experiences define our identities as Jews - that is the real challenge.