My Israel Story (thus far) in Three Parts

As Israel marked 73 years since its founding yesterday, I couldn’t help but think back upon my own “Israel journey.” And I realized it can be divided into three general stages.

Stage 1: Mythic Israel

Stage 1

My first trip to Israel took place in 1978 when I celebrated becoming Bnai Mitzvah on Masada. From the first moment I stepped off the plane I knew this was a different kind of trip. I was overwhelmed to hear Hebrew being spoken in the airport. (Having been a poor Religious School student I didn’t understand a word but it was still powerful.) As corny as it might sound, as we traveled the country I felt as if I had come home.

I was amazed by the archaeology. And I was moved by the realization that, no matter where I stepped, I was walking on ground that my/our ancestors walked upon for thousands of years.

Israel was amazing. Israel was a miracle. And, at the time, I thought Israel was perfect.

As the trip came to an end I told my guide Tova that I wanted to make aliyah. She smiled and told me a story that made a distinction between how Israel looked to a tourist and the reality of actually living there.

When I returned on a teen tour two summers later, and then again when I was 17 to spend the summer working on an archaeological dig, I was still seeing Israel through rose-colored glasses. In fact, those experiences made my glasses even rosier.

 

Stage 2: The Complex, Often Troubling, Reality

Stage 2

I spent the summers before and after my Junior year of college working on an archaeological excavation. During the year between those summers I lived with Israelis and studied at the Hebrew University. My roommate had just come out of the Israeli army and regaled me with painful stories about his experience. He talked about the unfair treatment of Palestinians and could not understand why I would choose to spend time living in such a place.

That was when the mythic veneer began to wear off.

Midway through the year, new immigrants from Ethiopia were told by the Chief Rabbi of Israel that they were not “Jewish enough” and would have to convert before they would be recognized as Israeli. The thought that people who had struggled to maintain their Judaism and then risked their lives to find their way to Israel would be treated this way horrified me. I spent a few days with Ethiopian demonstrators at a protest in the plaza across from the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. While there, I became increasingly distressed and finally realized what my tour guide Tova had tried to tell me so many years before.

In the years that followed I saw and experienced more of this side of Israel. It was disheartening to see the lack of movement toward peace. It was enraging that, because of the tight grip the Rabbinate had on Jewish observance, Israel was the only place in the world where I and my Reform and Conservative colleagues were not recognized as Rabbis and Cantors.

And then there was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist. It was a watershed moment for many of us as the reality that the ugliness and hate so easily identified in many of the detractors of Israel also existed WITHIN Israeli society. It was a painful wake up call.

I still loved Israel but my disappointment at the reality of the Jewish State ran deep.

Stage 3: A More Integrated Relationship

Stage 3

In the years that followed, my connection to Israel never waned, but the cognitive dissonance I often encountered was frequently troubling.

On the one hand, there was the inspirational Israel. Swamps had been turned into fertile land. Technological innovations began flowing out of Israel at an ever-quickening pace. Many of those innovations were shared with the world to help improve the lives of others. Israel developed desalinization technologies that address the water shortage that, for decades, seemed the likely focus of future conflicts between Israel and her neighbors. And each time there was a disaster anywhere in the world, Israel was the first country to offer to send help. These are just a few of the many things that reminded me that Israel is not only a miracle, but is truly in a position to be a light unto the nations.

On the other hand, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza continue to live under difficult conditions, and we are no closer to a two-state solution that gives the right of self-determination to both Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Arabs, while full citizens of Israel, still encounter discrimination in their day to day lives. In addition, as in the US, income inequality in Israel has grown significantly in recent years. And, although there has been some progress in recent months, the Rabbinate still holds a tight grip over religious life in Israel.

At times it almost feels as if there are two different Israels. One is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and a reflection of the good people can achieve when they work together toward shared goals. The other is a society in dire need of learning and acting upon the prophetic calls for justice. But there aren’t two Israels. And in the last few years I have not only come to appreciate that fact, but, as I did, my love for and connection to Israel has only grown deeper.

That realization came about, in part, because of the three Progressive Rabbis Missions sponsored by AIEF, AIPAC’s Educational Foundation, I co-chaired between the summers of 2014 and 2016. During those trips we saw the beauty and wonder of Israel AND the problematic challenges Israel faces. During those trips I began to appreciate the complexity of the Jewish State. I came to fully appreciate the fact that, in the age of Twitter, complexity and nuance disappear and, as a result, the US media does a terrible job of covering that complexity. And I realized that both those who believe Israel can do no wrong and those who vilify the Jewish State have little understanding of it and, sadly, even less interest in learning.

And now, as I sit here reflecting on my “Israel journey,” I’m realizing that my current “relationship” with Israel at this stage is a far more mature relationship than it was during either of the first two. My love and commitment to Israel no longer prevent me from seeing the flaws and challenges it faces. But at the same time, those challenges and those flaws make me more determined than ever to both support and protect the Jewish State AND push Israel to better achieve the lofty goals upon which the Zionist State was founded. It is why I remain an active AIPAC activist AND concerned about the state’s current direction.

At 73, Israel has matured as a nation. My connection and commitment to the Jewish State has as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen