07 August 2006

Aired Laundry Dries Faster

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

At dinner recently with a rabbi friend of mine, the talk turned to the current situation in the Middle East, and to my willingness to be critical – openly, publicly critical – of the response from the American Jewish community to the situation. My friend said that while he agrees with much of my perspective on the problems, there is a general feeling on his part that holds him back from criticizing the American Jewish community and its institutions too heavily or publicly.

The question of airing one’s (dirty) laundry in public is a long-standing one for many minority communities in many places around the world. It may even be a natural human hesitation: there are certain things best discussed first behind closed doors, where arguments can be had and debates engaged for as long as it takes to produce a solid consensus opinion. Then, and only then, can that opinion become public.

It’s been some time since I thought that we Jews living here in the US were still bound by this kind of convention. That is not because we have reduced our laundry load so significantly [many things still don’t get much discussion, like the fact that a certain Washington lobbyist who is in hot water with the Federal government was a big supporter of Jewish causes, including schools], but because our community is established enough – wealthy, well-educated, politically-engaged, and with people serving in powerful governmental and business positions – that, as with the dominant communities of the US, we can afford to have some of our dramas can play out publicly. In fact, public debate might create a thorough review of ideas and perspectives where such thinking does not currently exist.

That is essentially the situation (and the problem) with the “official” American Jewish perspective on Israel: there isn’t much discussion, because It Has Been Decided: we support Israel. Period. Whether it is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), or the United Jewish Communities / Federation, or many of the hundreds of synagogues and community organizations across the country, the position of support for Israel is, so to speak, holy. The rightness or wrongness of Israel’s actions does not matter; attacking Lebanese civilians, as opposed to (Hizbollah’s) military targets, does not matter; the unilateral construction of a de facto border with the thus-far stillborn Palestinian state does not matter; the forty-year occupation and oppression of another people does not matter; the disproportionate response to any attack or provocation does not matter. What matters is Israel, what matters is going to the mat for the idea that whatever Israel says is in its self-defense is legitimate, whatever Israel claims is well-founded. Who are we to question, after all?

Well, we do have a right to question, and we should. “We” American Jews (and Americans generally, for that matter) provide billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year – billions through the U.S. government, and billions more through charitable organizations supporting the continued growth of the state of Israel – and that financial support entitles us to have a role in discussing how those funds are spent. But we cannot question the actions of the Israelis if we do not first question our own actions and motivations, and if we do not work to better understand ourselves and the needs of our own Jewish community – and this is the part that is missing. The American Jewish community needs more debate, more open discussion about whether our funding of the state of Israel is, in fact, having a negative effect; whether we are enabling Israel to fight instead of encouraging it to make peace; whether we are confusing Israel’s survival with the underlying quality of its existence; whether we are betraying our own Jewish morals and values by supporting an Israeli state that has so often failed to live up to those same values – values which it also espouses in equal measure. We need more voices like Mitchell Plitnick’s, willing to confront the monolith of establishment American Jewish opinion. AND, we need to stop forwarding, blindly and devoutly, every pro-Israel e-mail that comes across our path, because these e-mails contribute to a process of rote emotional response rather than engaged thought.

I don’t know whether I changed my friend’s mind (though I would like to think that I did). But even if I did not, I hope I have (again) started the process: encouraging one person to wonder – privately for now, and perhaps publicly later – whether we are on the right track in our approach to and support for Israel. There is something to be said for keeping certain issues private until the right moment comes in which to make them public. On the other hand, our ideas, like laundry, may air out better if exposed to fresh breezes and a lot of direct sunlight.


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