Hello, young Jews of the world! Honestly, I am somewhat concerned for your welfare.
You’re under pressure. Supporting Israel is turning uncool in some quarters, and you’re being challenged, sometimes even without you having brought it up. People are pressing you on Israel, or I fear they will, just because you’re Jewish. I’m sorry that’s happening. It’s not fair. Here’s a brief resource for when you find yourself thrust into that spot. It’s intended as a quick guide, from my admittedly pro-Israel perspective, if you’re not super well-informed.
I’m no Middle Eastern scholar, but I come from a Holocaust family, and I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about Israel and its place in the world. I think I can at least deliver the basics. Others who are well informed may say I’m leaving a lot out. Yep, that’s right, either because I don’t know everything, for sure, or because I want to keep this short and accessible. Forgive me, please, for not taking the scenic route.
A Jew named Theodor Hertzl saw an avalanche of antisemitism worldwide and wanted someplace for Jews to go and be safe. In the 1890s, he ignited a Jewish yearning for gathering in Israel.
Over a century ago, there were already Jews living in Palestine when more started flooding in. They often arrived to escape pogroms (where people would show up in a Jewish town and just start killing, etc.). They also fled other unfair treatment, and eventually, Nazism and post-World War II displaced person camps.
After World War II, countries were generally not accepting Jewish refugees. Growing friction between Jews and Palestinians was an unfortunate result of an influx of Jews without options.
The British controlled the land of Israel, and after World War II when they wanted out, everyone knew the place was going to be a heap of trouble. Jews and Palestinians were already fighting. There was a 1947 partition plan, Arab leadership rejected it and British withdrawal just meant all-out war. The Jewish side won. Israel was born in 1948.
Why the land of Israel? In the Torah, which is our founding and central document, there is a strong relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. One of the great moments of the Torah is when Moses doesn’t get to enter the land with the people before his death. He strikes a rock in anger after God asks him only to speak to it. I’m no rabbi, but I feel like you could have 1,000 good discussions about that. I’m sure they’ve been had.
Today, the land is home to a lot of history for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This includes the Western Wall, which is all that’s left of a Great Temple that was once the heart of Judaism.
Returning home was something a beleaguered people could rally around.
Why do us older folks take pride in Israel?
After the 1948 War of Independence, large Arab nations again got together and attacked tiny Israel repeatedly, and the Jewish state miraculously won each time. On the map, it looked a bug that just would not get squashed. This earned Israel worldwide respect and a reputation for being able to stand up for itself like a scrappy little guy. With the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair in France, and so many other instances of antisemitism throughout history, Jews hadn’t had that don’t-mess-with-me reputation for centuries.
It was a beautiful thing – Jews finally could look out for Jews. So magical, so special. I guess that’s part of why my grandmother, of blessed memory, worked so hard to support Israel through her Hadassah chapter in Queens, New York. She also mailed many copies of the Long Island equivalent of the Chronicle to my dorm room at Hofstra University. It was something I didn’t sufficiently appreciate at the time, which I regret.
That’s life. There will be regrets and joy. You’ll see. But I digress.
The dream of a safe haven for Jews has come true in a lovely way, by the way. Jews from all over the world have emigrated to Israel, including many from the former Soviet Union, where Jews were not considered full equals. More recently, many Jews have arrived fleeing antisemitism in France. After 1948, Arab nations seized Jewish property and expelled Jews. In fact, many Jews of color emigrated from Arab nations, Ethiopia and elsewhere to escape antisemitism or for a better life. Worldwide Jewry is a true rainbow, and Israel is an amazing reflection of that ethnic diversity.
What’s going on in Gaza?
Israel has been targeted by kite bombs and rockets from Gaza. The state of Israel defends itself, even as it works to avoid civilian casualties. It’s not easy. Military operations from Gaza are sometimes conducted from places with lots of civilians – there are accusations that militants use the Palestinian people as human shields.
There is no genocide happening in Gaza, if you should hear anybody talk about that. Israeli troops left Gaza in 2005. The population of Gaza has doubled since the 1990s; as I saw someone on social media put it, that arguably makes it the “Worst. Genocide. Ever.” Again, there is no genocide happening in Gaza. Genocide has happened to the Jewish people, and to others, so the accusation is frankly absolutely maddening.
Life in Gaza is hard, and that’s truly terrible. I want it to change. There are some reasons for the hardness of Gaza that are beyond Israel’s control.
Part of the cause is that Israel and Egypt have felt compelled to blockade Gaza because of terrorism from Gaza. Hamas oversees Gaza and works to get around the blockade, building tunnels into Israel to assist its terrorism. Hamas has committed itself to the destruction of Israel. It’s in the organization’s charter and in its behavior. Hamas was democratically elected to rule in January 2006, and there hasn’t been another election in Gaza since then. It is widely viewed as a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, Israeli politics are complicated. About 20 percent of the Israeli electorate is not Jewish. A new government is being formed with a non-Jewish Arab party as I write this.
What are our options for the future?
One of the great challenges of peacemaking has been that at least some Palestinians and Palestinian leadership do not seem to accept the Jewish side of the story. They don’t seem to accept that we fled tyranny for our spiritual and historic homeland in a world that sometimes likes to marginalize and kill Jews. If we could all only hold both sides of the Israel-Palestinian story in our hearts, maybe we could get somewhere in negotiations.
A single-state solution – where Jews and Arabs share power – is not a realistic option for a ton of reasons, in my view. One is that it would mean Israel would no longer be the safe haven of my grandmother’s dreams. Rising antisemitism worldwide shows us we still need Israel. Another issue is that the militant wing of the Palestinian people is strong. A one-state solution would mean sharing. You can’t share with people who want to kill you. I mean, Israel pulled out of Gaza and now it’s a rocket launching pad. “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” is a common refrain – that doesn’t seem to include a place for Jews.
Many people hope for a two-state solution, with a democratic Israel and Palestine each occupying their own space and maybe learning to get along that way. This was a subject of past negotiations but now seems like a lost, old dream. Today, there doesn’t seem to be a big appetite for the two-state solution on the Palestinian side, and that has helped lead to a diminished appetite for it on the Israeli side. I still hope for an eventual change in the climate and a return to negotiations. Maybe someday.
Is Israel perfect?
I’m not saying Israel is perfect. I’ve disagreed with some of the government’s choices. And yet I have feelings for the Jewish state that endure. It’s like a second home, even though I’ve only been there a few times.
Criticism is OK. There’s a lot to criticize about America, and I’m not about to turn in my beloved American citizenship. And have you met us, the United States? If Hamas was in Canada and shelling Chicago, I shudder to think what America would do.
Why so much criticism?
I’m proud of Israel’s difficult navigation of a tough neighborhood. I wish things were better, for the Palestinians and for everyone there. I know that many Israelis feel the same way.
The criticism of Israel under the circumstances can seem so over the top, I sometimes wonder to what extent it’s driven by today’s rising antisemitism. Where is the equally audible criticism of other painful situations in the world? On antisemitism as a motivator, I’m sorry to say I’ve become suspicious.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.