Friday, September 03, 2010

A mess in progress

David Suissa

Is Israel going in the right or the wrong direction? If the glass of Zionism is half full, is it in the process of being filled or depleted? And how do we even define the "right" direction? These are the kind of questions that have been going through my mind as I've been reflecting on my 30-day journey to the Holy Land. In one respect, my trip was a failure. Before leaving, I swore to myself that I would be totally objective, that I would look at Israel's negative side with a cold eye, that I wouldn't let my Zionist emotions get in the way. I wanted to view Israel through the skeptical lens of a journalist, rather than the warm lens of familial love.

I failed royally. How could I not? How could I be unbiased about a country that touches me so deeply? A country Abraham Joshua Heschel calls "An Echo of Eternity"?

Every time I saw something that drove me nuts, my Zionist bias made me look for positive signs, for a redeeming feature, for a ray of hope.

If I saw a Charedi establishment that made it extremely difficult for non-Jews to convert to Judaism, I would find a courageous Charedi rabbi in the Knesset who is fighting for a more flexible interpretation of Jewish law.

If I saw signs of discrimination toward minorities, I would meet with people like Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, who would remind me about the numerous human rights organizations in Israel that use the Israeli legal system to defend the rights of Israeli Arabs and other minorities. Or I would see a demonstration to protest the deportation of illegal immigrants. Or I would see police officers lining the streets of Jerusalem to protect the rights of gays to parade in front of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

If I saw signs of tension between the many ethnic groups in the country, I would meet someone who would inform me that there are over 100 different nationalities in the Israel Defense Forces.

If I despaired about the ability of Jewish settlers to ever get along with Palestinians, I would meet settlers in the West Bank who are collaborating with their Palestinian neighbors over things like water conservation and getting more fire trucks.

If a Jewish university professor would drive me nuts by spewing anti-Zionist venom and supporting the international boycott of his own country, I would remind myself that it is to the credit of Israel that he has the freedom to spew that very venom.

It's true that viewed from the outside, Israel's image is heading south. Books like "Start-Up Nation" are nice, and so are signs of a recent thaw in the relationship between Israel and the Obama administration with the opening this week of direct peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

But those are minor causes for optimism in the face of the global movement to delegitimize the Jewish state, documented in excruciating detail by the Reut Institute. No matter how positively I viewed my Israeli experience, it was impossible to forget that the view from the outside is quite different. We could moan all day long that Israel is subjected to a nasty and unfair double standard, but that is still the reality.

This assault on Israel's legitimacy has created an almost hysterical polarization among the Jews of the Diaspora, and I understand both sides. One side feels the need to defend and push back against the assault; the other feels the need to reaffirm the Jewish ideals of self-criticism and self-correction. And both sides seem to be digging in their heels. As a result, two things are being lost - complexity on one side, and expressions of love on the other.

This is why I loved being in Israel. I saw both love and complexity. A perfect example was Micah Goodman, the head of the Israeli Academy of Leadership, Ein Prat, who is relentless in his critique of Israeli policies and the need to "renew Zionism," but who also overflows with love for Zionism and had this to say to keep things in perspective:

"The mark of a good idea is whether it works in extreme circumstances," he told me one morning in Jerusalem. "Liberals of the world should love Israel, because it proves that democracy works. Israel is a country under siege, in a state of permanent war, and, still, it manages to grant freedom of speech, freedom of religion and more human rights than most democracies."

So yes, Israel is a mess, a noisy, resilient, frustrating, vibrant, complicated mess. But it's also a mess in progress, not least because the most vicious critics of the state are free to be the most vicious critics of the state.

Will the rest of the world ever catch up to the balance and complexity of Micah Goodman's thinking, and to his deep and poignant love for Zionism? I doubt it.

But it'd be nice if the Jewish world could - and that includes emotional Zionists like yours truly.

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine, and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He can be reached at

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