But when I blew past the 700-word limit, I figured I could just post here. By the way, JewishJournal, if you have a word limit, let me know about it up front, not when I click to submit.
Anyway, Rabbi Perlo’s piece suggests that we’ve had a failure of leadership in articulating and disseminating a vision for Israel’s importance. I agree with him that our discourse has become stale, and revolves around left-right politics and a post-Holocaust justification for Israel’s existence. We certainly do need to reformulate the Zionist project, and with it, the Diaspora-Israel relationship. Where I part with Perlo is that he believes that Rabbi David Hartman may have hit on such a formulation. In Perlo’s summation of Hartman,
Israel is the grand experiment of Judaism. It is important, critical, because it is the only place where the totality of the religious, cultural, political and social ideas of Judaism and Jews are expressed through a body politic. Israel is the only place in the world where Judaism is the civilization, and the ideals we claim to hold apply to a living country. For this reason, if for no other, Israel is of central importance to anyone who loves Judaism.
In Rabbi Hartman’s formulation, Israel is Judaism’s grand experiment, and as appealing as that claim is, it has no support. Secular Israelis continue to be alienated from and hostile towards Judaism. Liberal Jewish movements haven’t had much success in convincing Israelis otherwise. Many of the ultra-Orthodox reject the legitimacy of the state, or at least deny its religious validity. And the religious Zionists have placed the Land of Israel above the State of Israel in their thinking.
The idea of the State as an entity where Jews govern themselves was once a powerful organizing principle. Today it is a tired reality, and a fragmented reality at that. Governing the Palestinians for forty years is one aspect of the problem, but even within Israel proper, the role of non-Jewish minorities poses questions as yet unanswered about the Jewish character of the state. American Judaism’s struggle for recognition, respect, and freedom of worship has deflated the positive feelings of American’s most talented young Jewish leadership towards Israel. And as Israel’s power has grown to regional super-power status, both Israelis and Americans are less willing to give Israel a free pass to use security concerns to justify any course of action.
Why is Israel important? The question itself is outrageous. Millions of people live in Israel, under Israeli rule. Some are members of our tribe, some are our coreligionists, some are ideological fellows. And some are none of these. Israel is another human effort to create a just, happy, and productive society, springing from Jewish thought, culture, and heritage. The question we need to pose is not why Israel is important, but what values should Israel commit itself to, and how should it express those values. In America we value, freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. Do we value the same in Israel? Should we? If not, how do we explain why our values in Israel are different? Those are questions we have elided for too long, questions that young people are not hearing answers for, and ultimately, questions that we are not too sure of ourselves.