What shall we tell the children?
Last week I wrote about the welcome return of a seemingly endangered species: the Liberal Zionist. This week, I want to complain about another genus: The Liberal Jew who can’t quite bring him- or herself to think about Israel.
American Jewry seems increasingly bifurcated between a passionate pro-Israel minority, who often brook no debate about Israel, and a disengaged majority, who for various reasons have stopped talking about Israel altogether.
Marjorie Ingall, a columnist for the on-line Jewish magazine Tablet, spoke for this latter cohort in an essay last week. “I am a liberal, and I am deeply troubled by the Matzav, Israeli shorthand for tension with the Palestinians, and I do not have answers, and I do not know what to do about it, and I do not know what to tell my children,” she wrote.
She asks, “Exactly how should liberal parents who want to foster Jewish identity, but who see Zionism as the conversational equivalent of an Alar-coated apple, teach their children about Israel?”
I don’t mean to pick on Marjorie (I was at the Forward when she began her terrific parenting column), but my first thought was that her column was intellectually lazy. But that’s unfair — I think some American-Jewish liberals have a hard time thinking about Israel not because they are lazy, but precisely (davke, as the Israelis say) because the subject is so fraught. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that the things we have the most trouble articulating are those that hit closest to home.
Granted, Israel’s is a complex and sometimes troubling narrative of grand moral ideals colliding with disconcerting reality. But at some point, you have to introduce your kids to the notion of cognitive dissonance. You have to teach them that good people sometimes do bad things, that worthy institutions sometimes don’t live up to their ideals, that no country can claim an unblemished or unambiguous past. Does America’s slave-owning past negate the glories of the Constitution? Did institutional anti-Semitism forever tarnish the promise of Ellis Island?
Many American Jews seem able to assimilate every complex historical narrative except Israel’s. That’s not because they are “self-hating,” as some truly loathsome people would have it, but precisely the opposite. I think they are in love with a conception of Judaism as wise, warm, liberal, humane, and bookish. They love, as do I, the Jew’s role as permanent outsider, the critic who stands at a remove from society and is thus in a better position to see and judge it clearly.
And ultimately, they are in love with Jewish powerlessness — not that they prefer Jews as victims (although some might), but because so many of the traits they associate with Judaism flourished when Jews lacked power. It was easy to be the world’s conscience when we lacked the means to hold power and exert it.
But with Zionism, Jews took charge — of themselves, of others, of their history. I would argue to my grave that considering their adversaries and the awful example set by so many other countries in similar circumstances, Israelis have passed that test of power with flying colors. The record is hardly spotless, and many of us worry that unless it finds a way to move beyond the status quo, Israel will be forced to adopt the ugly ethos of many of its neighbors. But I’ll take the power, even when it is sometimes abused, over the alternative: the destruction of a Jewish civilization.
Marjorie teaches her kids about Judaism “through ancient history, through food, through songs and prayers, through the story of American immigration.” Me too. But to revel in these things without including the case for and challenges of Zionism is a distorted and nostalgic view of Jewish identity.
At the same time, it is a huge injustice to discuss Israel only as a sum total of its faults. One can start by teaching about the kinds of people who make up its citizenry. Holocaust survivors. Russian immigrants. Mizrachi Jews who were kicked out of their own countries. Some 1.5 million Arab citizens. And yes, settlers and fervently Orthodox Jews who may not share your current brand of Judaism, but share your history and DNA.
Those examples not only “justify” Israel’s existence, but give a sense of the richness of the Israeli accomplishment. Israel isn’t an “idea.” It is millions of people going about the daily business of making a life. We owe them their realness — their actuality. To ignore them is somehow to hope they disappear. Instead, teach your kids about the things Israelis eat, the schools they attend, the ways they celebrate and mourn.
Eventually that will lead to its politics and challenges, and maybe by that point they’ll appreciate the complexity of the situation and what — this is important — has made it so difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to solve their problems. They’ll realize that the solution rests on both sides finding the security and dignity they deserve.
Jewish liberals complain that mainstream organizations demand “blind loyalty” to Israel. To the extent that’s true, liberals have to learn to say “to hell with them.” There comes a point when all parents have to take responsibility for themselves and their own kids and stop blaming their elders. The inspiring, messy, complex, genuine, uplifting, disheartening, sad, and glorious Israel is there for the taking — and teaching. You don’t need permission from anybody, and you don’t have to apologize to anybody.