Israel & Us: Creating a New Narrative

Drawing from her involvement with groups ranging from T’ruah to the New Jewish Agenda, Rabbi Toba Spitzer explains the power of two disparate narratives in describing, understanding and working to find commonality within the American Jewish discourse on Israel/Palestine.

This year, the State of Israel turns 70. I have been alive for 55 of those years, and have been a participant in and observer of American Jewish-Israel relations since about 1980, when I first went to Israel for a year-long, post-high school hachshara program on a kibbutz in the Negev. I was ostensibly being trained for aliyah to kibbutz; in fact, I was receiving the first of what would become many moments of education in the reality vs. the myth of Israel. I learned about the complexities of socialistic communal living; I spent a week in an Israeli Arab village, experiencing an odd disconnect from the majority culture surrounding it; I visited a Jewish settlement in Yamit about to be given back to Egypt as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. I wrote in my journal, “Nationalism has created an unsolvable problem in the Middle East.” I developed my first real connection to a place—its sounds, smells, vistas, people—that had been an abstraction to me until that complicated, wonderful, difficult, transformative year.

In the years since—during which time I’ve been involved in a plethora of American Jewish peace groups, from New Jewish Agenda to the Jewish Peace Lobby to Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and then J Street, and most recently, T’ruah—the American Jewish landscape has shifted in interesting and sometimes bewildering ways. When I was in college in the early 1980s, including the letters “PLO” in a document calling for dialogue between Israel and its enemies could get you kicked out of the organized Jewish community. Calling for a two-state solution, pre-Oslo, positioned one on the far left of the community. For a brief period of time, when Rabin was prime minister and the Oslo Accords were signed, I felt suddenly in the mainstream. But by the launch of J Street in 2007, when I was president of the RRA, I became the only current president of any American Jewish organization who dared sign on to the inaugural Advisory Board (with the support of the RRA Executive Committee); the general feeling at the time was that lightning might strike anyone who dared challenge AIPAC’s monopoly on Israel-related lobbying.

In more recent years, things have shifted once again. Support for a “two-state solution” has become a mainstream position (even if that support often comes with lukewarm commitment to the actual changes needed to accomplish it). With the emergence of the international BDS movement, and Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow on the American scene, the American Jewish community has opened up to include a span of opinion not seen since the pre-1947 debates about Zionism. Yet one thing remains the same: our continued difficulty in having mature, respectful and useful conversations about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, and I lay much of the blame on a misguided attempt to foster “unity” in the American Jewish community in the years after 1967, which in practice meant silencing those with left-wing Zionist or non-Zionist views. But whatever the causes, the result is an American Jewish community truly fractured over Israel. It is the third rail of synagogue life. Huge numbers of younger American Jews feel completely alienated from the organized Jewish community because of Israel. Close friends and family members avoid the topic for fear of losing precious relationships.

One of the saddest by-products of the difficulties around discussing Israel is that many people end up feeling alienated or cut out of the conversation entirely. This can happen to someone on either side of the political spectrum. Someone who is critical of Israeli government policy gets the message that they are not a “good Jew” or a “real Jew,” or that it is traitorous to even bring up the subject of oppressive policies enacted by the Israeli government. Someone who feels supportive of Israel—even if they do not agree with everything that the Israeli government does—can feel that they are being branded as a right-wing extremist if they defend Israel in a group that is predisposed to be critical. In either case, the end result is that we have split our community and made someone, or a group of people, feel silenced.

Why Is This So Hard?

When we talk about Israel, we are often actually talking about something else entirely. As the only place in the world where Jews exercise power as Jews and where Jews are visible in such a distinct way, it is not surprising that Israel and its policies become repositories for much of the Jewish “baggage” that we all carry—from the legacy of the Holocaust to ambivalence around Jewish identity to conflicted feelings about Jews and power. At the same time, Israel symbolizes much of what makes many people proud as Jews. I sometimes think of it as the little goat in the biblical Yom Kippur ritual, sent off into the wilderness with the sins and sorrows of an entire community on its head.

A central component of this complexity is the issue of Jews as oppressors/Jews as victims. For significant portions of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, Jews were victims of discrimination, hatred and violence, facts that ultimately drove the Zionist movement to claim the right of Jews to once again exercise political power in our own state. I believe that for many American Jews, it is painful if not impossible to admit (or even comprehend) that Jews might act as oppressors in relation to another people. Jewish discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often attempts, implicitly if not explicitly, to maintain our Jewish status as victims—of Palestinian terror, of greater Arab anti-Semitism—even in the face of actual Israeli military might. Much of the reality of Palestinian experience is vigorously denied because to accept that reality would be to accept that Jews, just like any other people, can misuse power and cause harm to others.

Among those who are highly critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, there is often a mirror image of this attachment to the idea of “Jew as victim,” which manifests as a deep discomfort with the very fact of Jews being in a position of power. In this case there tends to be strong identification with the Palestinians as victims, and an inability or unwillingness to take seriously Israeli fears and concerns. Jews in power become suspect, reflections less of Jewish reality than of oppressive historical forces like racism and colonialism.

Whether left or right, the history and experience of Jewish victimization often distorts our ability to clearly see current realities, and our own feelings about Jewish power and victimization play into our feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘Justice’ vs. ‘Survival’

While we all have our own unique, idiosyncratic relationship to Israel/Palestine, I see two dominant narrative frames that shape much of the American Jewish discourse. I call these the “existential” narrative and the “justice” narrative. Drawn in broad strokes, they each go something like this:

In the existential narrative, the conflict is between Jews and Arabs, between the Jewish people and those who seek to displace or destroy us. Framed as an existential struggle, the conflict raises for many Jews existential fears: fears that we will never be accepted as a nation among nations; fears of physical annihilation. These fears have only increased with the rise of violent Islamic extremism and the weakening of many of the Arab states surrounding Israel. In this frame, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is inextricably linked to world-wide anti-Semitism and to the failure of much of the world to understand, or sympathize with, the Zionist project.

Most profoundly, this “us vs. them” narrative evokes a long history of Jewish existential struggles, centuries of Jewish suffering at the hands of those who in some way did not want us to exist. In the existential narrative, the State of Israel is not only felt to be key to the survival of the Jewish people, but it takes on the symbolic power of standing in for the Jewish people. Thus, any kind of attack on it, whether physical or verbal, becomes an assault on our very existence. To be “anti-Israel” becomes, ipso facto, to be anti-Semitic.

By contrast, in what I call the “justice narrative,” the binary is not “Jew vs. enemy” but “oppressor versus oppressed,” in which Israel—and by extension the organized Jewish community—is the oppressor, and Palestinians (and their supporters) the oppressed. In this narrative, categories used to analyze other global struggles are used to frame the situation, including narratives of colonialism and national liberation, and narratives of racism and the fight against racism. The struggle for Palestinian liberation against Israeli occupation is thus at its core a matter of morality, of choosing to be on the side of justice versus injustice.

What I have observed is that it is impossible for someone inhabiting one of these frames to have any kind of real conversation with someone in the other. There are simply no terms in common. From one perspective, if you disagree with me, then you are hostile to the very existence of the Jewish people. From the other, if you disagree with me, then you are immoral. There is very little room left for productive discourse. What tends to happen is that a person from one narrative, when confronted with someone inhabiting the other, pulls out a barrage of “facts” to bolster their position. Each sees the other as disconnected from reality. But no amount of “facts” will ever get someone to shift out of a narrative frame that defines how they interpret those facts.

The problem with these narratives is not that they are false. There is truth in both. Jewish existence over the millennia has been precarious at times, and anti-Semitism is real. Israelis do suffer actual harm, and many Israelis feel that the continued existence of their state is precarious. And there is powerful truth to the justice narrative. The Palestinian people suffer terribly under occupation, and there are profound injustices experienced every day not just by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but by non-Jewish citizens of Israel. There are serious moral issues at stake.

But whatever truths each might contain, both of these narratives are limited and limiting. They allow for only partial understanding of the larger truth of things. With the existential narrative, real issues regarding Jewish safety and the threat of anti-Semitism become intertwined with an almost mythical sense of Jewish victimization. It is a narrative that both feeds on and provokes fear. This is ultimately counter-productive because it is difficult to act wisely and effectively from a place of fear.

My critique of the justice narrative is that the complexities of the situation and of the actual people involved  can become obscured by categories of analysis that are not always relevant or illuminating. In addition, this narrative can play into mythical images of the powerful Jew that are prominent in the history of anti-Semitism, and it denies legitimacy to Jewish claims of peoplehood and self-determination. This frame tends to minimize the reality of Jewish suffering and of Jewish fear. Ultimately, this narrative feeds on and provokes anger—an anger that can become deeply alienating and divisive, and as counter-productive as fear to finding any real solution.

Both of these narratives rely on overly simplistic binaries that fail to do justice to the truths on the ground. To say that a person or organization is “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian” is to reduce the situation to something akin to a football game, where everyone needs to choose their “team” and then dig in for the battle. In this schema, acknowledgment of one “side” is taken as implicit critique or rejection of the other.

Towards a New Narrative

If we are to move beyond taking “sides,” what might that mean? The goal should not be an attempt to recover a mythical “unity” that was often used to squelch alternative voices. Instead, we should be working to create a discourse in which the many opinions and experiences of the members of our communities can be acknowledged and heard. Thankfully, we now have a wonderful communal resource—Resetting the Table—that offers training and practical guidance for how to better listen to one another and create new kinds of conversation in our congregations and communities.

But beyond being able to better hear one another, I also hold out the hope that we can create a new narrative—one that will lead to more helpful engagement with the realities of life on the ground in Israel/Palestine, so that the American Jewish community can become a partner, rather than an obstacle, to a transformation of the current reality. Such a narrative would not suffer from the limitations of the “justice” and “survival” narratives, but would be able encompass multiple truths. It would be a narrative that would not ask us to choose a “side,” but to stay curious about experiences different than our own, to really hear the suffering, as well as the aspirations of those on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It would ask us to jettison neither our own story nor the historical reality of others. It would demand critical and creative thinking about the problem posed by two peoples claiming historical rights to the same land. It would be grounded, I believe, in the values and practice of hesed (“lovingkindess”) and rakhamim (“mercy”): an ability to have compassion for my own suffering, for the suffering of those to whom I feel most connected and for the suffering of those with whom I feel the least connection—whether those are supporters of Hamas, settlers on the West Bank or some other group.

Within this new narrative frame, my hope would be that we, as American Jews, could wrestle together with the questions that arise when we seriously engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do we believe that the physical continuity of the Jewish people supersedes other Jewish values? What will bring true security and safety to Jews? To the citizens of Israel? To the Palestinian people? How do we honestly reckon with the contradictions inherent in the creation of a “Jewish” and “democratic” state? If the possibility of a viable two-state solution is past, what is the path to creating a viable one-state solution? And the list goes on.

I don’t imagine a narrative that asks any of us to sacrifice our most deeply held values, our historical analyses, or our personal connections to actual Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, I imagine something—like the Talmud, perhaps—where vigorous disagreement does not mean enmity or betrayal; where minority opinions are acknowledged as potentially the majority of the future; and where our relationships with one another are deepened, rather than frayed, by our collective wrestling. I imagine the possibility of conversations where we learn from one another and are open to having our minds changed, and where the ever-deepening learning we do together brings some insight and clarity to a situation that desperately needs all the compassion and wisdom that we might have to give.


One Response

  1. Very helpful indeed. You’ve illuminated the binaries that block compassion and dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Resources

June 14, 2024
The takeover of Israel by its extreme messianic right wing is now irrefutably complete.
June 2, 2024
Kaplan was convinced that the Zionist movement had made a serious error in not first negotiating directly with the Arabs.
May 6, 2024
We do well to remain vigilant about the ways in which our overarching narratives become self-serving and one-sided.
May 6, 2024
We’re living through the disintegration of American Jewish civil religion as we have known it.
May 6, 2024
The presence of Israeli troops stationed outside the school seemed designed to provoke the students so that they could then arrest as many of them as possible.
May 6, 2024
Martin Buber’s vision of a Zionism that centers ethical values seems particularly urgent right now.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

Get the latest from Evolve delivered to your inbox.

The Reconstructionist Network