By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, NFTY in Israel Director
This week our participants have been learning the story of the modern state of Israel along with their new Israeli friends who have joined them for the last week of the program. There are so many amazing parts of this country that are simply connected to living in a public culture that is Jewish and how Jewishness shapes the realms of language, literature, film, TV, social media, etc. In Israel, public space is Jewish space and having a public culture that reflects this is one of the most important reasons the Jewish people need our own country (like all other peoples). However, our young people have also been learning about the challenges of needing a Jewish sovereign state so that we can control our own political destiny (again, like all other peoples) and why Zionism was the liberation movement of the Jewish people.
Inevitably, living in a sovereign Jewish state invites a whole set of dilemmas about how we behave in the world, how we defend ourselves and how we deal with our enemies. Those issues are connected to another lesson this past week involving borders and the reality of the Jewish state being bordered by those with a stated goal of destroying us. This past week both young American and Israeli Jews discussed why we need a Jewish army and what it means to serve in a Jewish army. We discussed the concept of ethical sovereignty where having an independent state is a balancing act of taking care of your own people while behaving in a way that reflects Jewish values.
These are not easy conversations but they are exceptionally important. We also discussed why it is easy to be ethical when you are powerless, why it is much harder to be ethical when you actually have power, and why this is the story of the Jewish people in 20th and 21st centuries. From the borders of Lebanon, Syria and the Separation Barrier with the Palestinians, we taught, asked, and challenged our young people about the dilemmas facing the Jewish state. We know that while they are only in high school now, they will most likely encounter individuals in college who are far from friendly towards Israel. Knowing this, one of our goals is to engage our young adults in honest discussions about these challenges and have them begin to ask tough questions about where the Jewish state is going. It was fascinating to watch them and their Israeli peers begin a conversation from two sides of the Jewish world.
I know so many of us love Israel and are deeply connected to this country, but I can only assume there are times when Israel behaves in a way that is painful to us and we feel it makes mistakes (like all sovereign countries do). Perhaps Rabbi Yitz Greenberg put it best when talking about the delicate balance between how we combine our Jewish values with the reality of a Jewish state.
Many people are devastated when they see Jewish hands dirtied with the inescapable blood and guilt of operating in the world. The classic Jewish self-image-the innocent, sinned-against sufferer-is being shattered. When, under the influence of modern values, Zionists set out to create a Jewish state, most Jews were neutral if not opposed. The illusion of ethical perfectionism grows out of the record of millennial powerlessness whose results are projected incorrectly into the new reality. A normal country-let alone one like Israel that is continually threatened-will not survive if it ties its hands with absolute moral strictures and does not adjust to the pressures of power and threats posed by its enemies. Jewish powerlessness is absolutely incompatible with Jewish existence. But Jewish power is incompatible with absolute Jewish purity.
These are the real challenges that the Jewish people will face as the 21st century progresses. We teach our participants how to evaluate these challenges, focus on the competing sets of values that are involved, and engage with realistic ideas for a better future.
This Shabbat will be the last Shabbat in Israel for our groups after five weeks of walking through three thousand years of the Jewish story. As I observe our participants at the end of this journey, they look very very tired but nevertheless very fulfilled.