While I too was perturbed by the Israeli Ministry of Absorption’s billion-dollar ad campaign that has caused a huge media storm in recent days, I feel the need to write my feelings on a specific response to the campaign in Tablet Magazine written by one of its senior writers, Israeli expat Liel Leibovitz along with partner Lisa Ann Sandell, an American Jew. As a couple deeply connected to the Jewish community and to Israel, they are open about their grappling with the country as a possible home for their family and conclude that until Israel is more inclusive and representative of their beliefs, they cannot and will not call it home:
Often, we feel real remorse for abandoning this struggle we believe is so important, the struggle for Israel’s soul. Often, we feel as if we should brave the hurdles and the insults and jump back into the fray. But time, parenthood, and an Israeli government that seems dedicated to dismissing families like ours and driving American and Israeli Jews apart have all weakened our resolve. We cherish our family’s Jewish identity and our community, as do most American Jews we know. But our Jewish identities, and our sense of peoplehood, are based on inclusion—not exclusion and condescension. As long as Israel refuses to acknowledge this basic premise about the nature of Jewish peoplehood, we can’t call the Jewish state home.
They admit that they are “abandoning a struggle” that is important to them, but qualify their checking out with the fact that Israel is increasingly exclusive. The problem is that they are knowingly excluding themselves from participation because the problems seem so overwhelmingly colossal. While I understand their frustration, the attitude they express is defeatist – similar to a sports fan who stops supporting his beloved team when it seems to be on a clear path of failure.
They have every right to do so – I am not judging that decision, especially since I do not have children and don’t know what that feels like. I certainly do not think every Jew must live in Israel to fulfill their Judaism by any means. But when they say that “as long as Israel refuses to acknowledge this basic premise about the nature of Jewish peoplehood, we can’t call the Jewish state home” they demonstrate a clear disassociation that they have chosen to take from Israeli society.
After all, what “Israel” are they talking about? Israel the government? Israel as expressed by the Ministry of Absorption? Israel the concept of a Jewish state? Israel the public? They too, are a part of Israel, even the increasingly anti-democratic, consistently violent and socially inequitable Israel of 2011. And what do they mean, “as long as Israel refuses to…”? Who will be able to make a difference in what Israel refuses or agrees to do if not the very people who are affected by it, and in turn assume ownership over it? Who is going to change Israel, if not people like them? I agree with the sentiment that Israel is exclusive and problematic, but I do not want to and cannot wait around for it to get better. One cannot choose to be associated with Israel when the situation appears more socially just and completely detach when the situation is dire and embarrassing.
I am myself the product of a strong Israeli and Zionist upbringing in the US that the government should be very pleased with, despite having become a lefty activist. Although my mother left Israel, her entire family lives in Israel – third generation Israelis originally from Russia. She imparted me with an Israeli identity in the middle of New York City, speaking only in Hebrew to me, taking me to Israel every summer, singing me the songs and reading me the literature of Israel. While I have the choice to live outside Israel, I made a conscious decision to live here and ultimately that decision has become a way of life. I feel that there is no other place I call home, no matter how f-ed up it might be.
This means for me that I have assumed ownership of my identity and have a stake in this place. Whatever happens here affects me and I affect it. Even when I have spent time away from Israel and even if I do again in the future, this is the place I feel connected to, the place I ultimately come back to, the place where I want to affect change, where my lifestyle and values are expressed. It is not something I can switch on and off.
I agree with Yossi Gurvitz’s post that the ad campaign merely represents a fundamental pillar of Zionist ideology — that all Jews should equate their religious identity with a civilian one — and thus should not come as a surprise to American Jews. Zionism is indeed exclusivist and all Jews need to realize that. But Israel is a country and that is a reality. There are those who were born in Israel with no other passport and no other place to call home. There are those, like me, who have another passport and another place to call home, but for various personal reasons, have found their home here. There is no right or wrong here. But there is a difference between those who feel rooted in this place, for better or worse, and those that do not. This is not about whether one is a Zionist or not, or believing in one state or two – rather it is about the reality of one’s cultural and social reality and what one chooses to do with it.
The ones who feel rooted here cannot afford to refuse to call Israel home until it embodies their ideals -rather they are already here (whether physically or emotionally) embodying those ideals every day in whatever way they see fit. They will not wait around for Israel to get better and cannot disassociate from it until it does. It is their reality, and that in and of itself makes Israel a very different place than the Israel that many are disillusioned with.