Israelis must learn to listen to our American cousins

Israelis must learn to listen to our American cousins

JERUSALEM — American Jewish leaders understand that they have a partnership with Israel. Zionism began as a movement of Jews from all over the world, and 65 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, there is an understanding that Israel remains a project not only of Israeli citizens, but of Jews all over the world.

Israel is always a topic at the General Assembly. But when the GA meets in Jerusalem, issues of connection with and responsibility for the State of Israel are given more attention. This is a wonderful opportunity for Jewish leaders young and old to learn, experience and to go home and more confidently support Israel — and there is no doubt that Israel needs and deserves support and loyalty. We Israelis expect support and loyalty from our fellow Jews. After all, Israel was founded as a Jewish state.

One meaning of Jewish state has always been expressed in the Law of Return. Any Jew wishing to live in Israel is to be accepted as a citizen. This means that Jews who do not live in Israel live with a potential connection to the state, whether or not they ever choose to avail themselves of this right. A second meaning of Jewish state is found in the culture of Israel, where the language and calendar are those of the Jewish majority (of course, Muslims and Christians are free to express their languages and religions — Jewish State has never meant Jewish theocracy). Most American Jewish leaders enjoy the quiet of Shabbat in Israel, whether in a Jerusalem synagogue or a Tel Aviv beach. They take pride in our myriad social justice organizations.

But sometimes they see things that don’t seem fair. What about the fact that women are not allowed equal rights to pray as they wish at the Kotel (Western Wall)? Is the Robinson’s Arch proposal truly fair? Are Israel’s Arab citizens actually afforded the equal rights promised to them in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? If so, why are there so few parks in east Jerusalem? Why aren’t there always Arabic translators at Israeli hospitals? How can a democratic state support the control of the Orthodox rabbinate over issues as personal as marriage and conversion? And what about the Occupation?

 Israeli Jews often do not understand or appreciate the validity of these questions. The denominational issues and assumptions of Americans are different than those of Israelis, so why are these Americans imposing their issues on us?

Here is why: American Jews believe in democracy and have always been leaders in organizations demanding fair treatment of others. When American Jews come to Israel, they take pride in Israel’s Jewish and democratic institutions. They also see our flaws. We in Israel cannot and should not ask them only to speak and write about our accomplishments. We should not be afraid of criticism.

There is a lively discourse among Israelis about what might be best in this country. If we truly believe that Jews living elsewhere should have a stake in Israel, and if we want them to continue to support Israel, then we must be ready to listen to what they have to say. American Jews may have criticisms that we need to hear or ideas that may move us forward.

For example, Americans have a longer experience of living in a country that is a mixture of many cultures. Jewish federations model cooperation among different Jewish denominations. Many American Jewish communities are involved with interfaith projects. How do they teach the value of pluralism? What can we Israelis learn from them about working together?

 Of course, there is a difference between the stakes assumed by Israelis who live in the complexity of Israel and those assumed by people who live elsewhere. Thus only Israeli citizens have the right to vote in Israel’s elections. (Indeed, only citizens living in Israel or serving Israel from abroad have the right to vote. There is no absentee ballot in Israel.) Still, while the experience of being up close is important in assessing a situation, useful perspective can often be seen from a distance.

We expect nonexperts to defer to experts. Thus, while ethicists work with officers in the IDF to establish the army’s code of ethics, we trust the officers to make the best decisions in the field. Those who do not see a particular situation up close day by day need to be willing to hear the perspectives of those who see more and must live with the results of each policy decision.

We Israelis must appreciate that all Jews are connected. As members of the same family, with their own stakes in our successes and failures, American Jews should be encouraged to speak up. That doesn’t mean that we will agree at all time. But failure to listen and engage in an honest dialogue will alienate our overseas cousins and drive them away, and that is something that we cannot afford to do.

(Marcie Lenk is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post and was made available by the Shalom Hartman Institute.)