Monday, April 07, 2014

  • Monday, April 07, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
Rabbi Eric Yoffie in Haaretz asks why young US Jews are supposedly turning off from Israel. What he doesn’t realize is that he is part of the problem.

To be sure, students don’t want to hear sweeping generalizations about how everyone, everywhere is hostile to Israel and the Jews. Rabbi Daniel Gordis, speaking recently in Atlanta, told his audience that “the Palestinians hate Israel (and let’s be honest, the Jews, too) far more than they care about themselves.” American Jewish students are just not buying this; they are appropriately skeptical about Palestinian intentions, but are open-minded about the possibility of some kind of settlement. Their professors—and their parents—have taught them to avoid dismissive, categorical, uncritical thinking; and they know that Israel still has champions and friends, and that yes, moderation does exist, even in parts of the Arab world.

In short, our students are a sensible bunch. Why then do we have a problem with them? Because I have described only the first half of the discussion—the part where the basic arguments are made. But there is always a second part, during which the students prod and challenge. What about settlements, they want to know? If Israel is committed to two states, as I say it is, why the unending declarations from Israel’s government about more settlement construction? How is that consistent with a desire for a Jewish and democratic Israel? How are they to explain settlements to the anti-Israel activists on campus? How are they to explain settlements to themselves?

And even if I am right that Palestinian refusal to accept Israel is the heart of the problem, what, they ask, does Israel propose to do about it? How does it make sense for Israel’s government to do nothing other than build more settlements and wait for a restive, impoverished Palestinian population to explode?

Well, I admit, they are right. And I explain possible courses of action that Israel could take to ease the dangers of international isolation and strained relations with the United States: A unilateral withdrawal from some of the territories; a general settlement freeze; a decision by Israel to define its borders; an announcement that settlement will be confined to the major settlement blocs.

But, the students want to know, will Israel actually do any of these things? I hope so, I tell them, but I just don’t know.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First of all, it is very saddening to see that a rabbi who used to head one of the major American Jewish denominations seems to believe that the bulk of a college student’s Zionist education must occur on campus and that support of Israel is dependent on Israeli actions. Being pro-Israel must have solid arguments behind it, to be sure, but very few people become Zionists because of arguments. There is no substitute for experience - both the experience of growing up in a home with committed Jewish values and the experience of actually going to Israel for a week, month or year and seeing things first-hand.

The Jewish commitment to the Jewish state is not dependent on who is leading the government and whether you support them.

This doesn’t mean Jews cannot criticize Israel, but it does mean that supporting Israel is a wholehearted effort that is driven by emotions and love of your people; and that if you want to change Israel then the proper way to do it is by moving there and starting or joining with those who believe as you do, not by lobbying foreign organizations to bypass Israeli democracy.

Secondly, Yoffie doesn’t even seem to know that Israel’s settlement building is already being done inside existing settlement blocs with extraordinarily few exceptions. The idea that the West Bank is being steadily taken over by Jewish-owned homes is simply a lie, the percentage of the WB that is being taken up by Jewish settlements is virtually the same as it was 20 years ago. His inability to articulate that and instead to commiserate with students who don’t know any better indicates that perhaps Yoffie is not the best candidate for defending Israel on campus. Even liberal Jews should support building in communities that will remain in Israel no matter what, especially within Jerusalem's boundaries.

Thirdly, Yoffie completely ignores the fact that there is a Jewish claim to some or all of the territories. Whether it is a legal claim, indicated by UNSC 242’s wording of “secure and recognized boundaries,” or the emotional and historic claim of Jews having the right to have access to their holiest places in Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Shechem and elsewhere, he does not seem to mention that to these students. Whatever you think about the wisdom of Israel’s actions in Judea and Samaria, you must at least acknowledge that the negotiations are partially over the final borders, and it is silly for Israel to unilaterally concede land that is terrifically important historically, religiously and strategically - especially to people who say explicitly that they want to use that land as a springboard for the next phase of their campaign to destroy Israel.

As much as Yoffie thinks he loves Israel, he seems to be conflicted, and he is passing his own insecurities to the students that he thinks he is empowering. You can be sure that none of the “pro-Palestinian” speakers on campus are betraying any doubts about their cause. And students will naturally gravitate towards those that seem more sure of themselves.

Even that may be forgivable if Yoffie was willing to honestly describe the "right wing" or religious or national defense perspective on these topics and give them a fair airing while saying that he disagrees. Someone who really loves Israel also loves those he disagrees with. From this article, it appears that he cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the democratically elected Israeli government.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie needs to figure out his own feelings before he attempts to give what he thinks is a pro-Israel message to students who are very attuned to self-doubt.



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