I Own Israel – A Diaspora Jew’s Claim
Originally published in Tikkun magazine.
Israel is mine. I own it – or rather, I hold an ownership stake in it.
No, I am not a citizen of the country – I’m an American Jew, born upon Georgia’s red clay, now living amidst lush, Pennsylvanian foothills. And no, I am not obligated to send my children to the IDF, nor do I pay taxes or vote in the country’s elections. I did not pitch my tent this past summer along Rothschild Boulevard, nor have I physically stood with Palestinian and Israeli protesters in Nabi Saleh on a Friday afternoon, inhaling tear gas and fleeing from cannon-propelled skunk water.
True, I lived in Israel for many years, though such prior residence has nothing to do with my ownership status. And true, I descended into the visceral depths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when my wife was bombed at Hebrew University in 2002, though such suffering – and our State-supported care – doesn’t grant me any greater stake in the country or right to possess it.
I own Israel because the country insists upon such an arrangement, flailing as it struggles to be both Jewish and democratic. I’m a stakeholder because, as a legally-recognized member of the people of Israel (having in the past proven to the State that I have a Jewish mother and father), I’m granted the unequivocal right to return to my country at a moment’s notice. I am encouraged, even solicited, to return to my country at a moment’s notice.
This ownership stake I hold in Israel is less a possession than it is a responsibility – a responsibility I accept willingly and with a seriousness of purpose. I don’t own an apartment in Jerusalem or an Israeli passport, but I do own the shared responsibility of ensuring that Israel, as the national outgrowth of my people, creates a just society. It is a responsibility that has its origins in tradition, in the Talmudic precept that all those within “Israel” are responsible for one another (כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה).
However, in political terms, it’s a responsibility that comes directly from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a declaration which established the country as one “based on freedom, justice and peace” for all its inhabitants. It’s a declaration that appeals to me directly, in the diaspora, to help Israel realize this reality:
WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.
The redemption of Israel. This is why I often sharply critique Israel’s hawkish political elite, its settlement enterprise, its brutal suppression of the Palestinian people. It is why, when Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf recently wrote in his review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism that “the occupation is the greatest moral challenge of my generation,” I nodded in agreement. I nodded instinctively to the words my generation. For his generation is mine. As Jews, we are responsible for this. I am responsible for this – responsible for realizing the Israel envisioned upon its founding, an Israel created to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
Now, my claim upon Israel is different than that of a citizen, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. I am not impacted, in my daily life, by the decisions of the body politic in Israel, and my civic responsibilities within the country are almost non-existent.
Which is why, perhaps, when I stated recently that “the occupation is the greatest moral challenge of my generation,” personal objections from fellow Jews, both American and Israeli, littered my inbox, voices I didn’t know chanting a singular theme: You don’t have a claim, you don’t have the right to make such a claim.
But they are wrong.
The reality is this: most who chant that I have no claim do so for political reasons, do so because of my willingness to critique the country as a “leftist,” not because they truly believe that diaspora Jews have no legitimate stake in Israel. For those same people who attack my critiques place upon me the responsibility to support and defend Israel at untold costs. Why? Because it is my responsibility, as a Jew – they say – to defend it.
To do otherwise is to be branded as self-hating, as anti-Semitic, as a capo (as Jon Stewart knows all too well).
But my defense of the Israel envisioned at its founding manifests itself, at times, in the form of critiquing the way in which Zionism manifests itself today, a Zionism that allows for an Israel which unspeakably suppresses the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people living under its thumb in the Occupied Territories. An Israel which regularly suppresses nonviolent Palestinian protest marches, full of families and children, with military force. An Israel which, through its repressive system of military justice in the Occupied Territories, often indefinitely detains Palestinians without charge or evidence for months and, sometimes, years. An Israel which, between 2005 and 2010, convicted 99.8 percent of 853 Palestinian minors charged with rock throwing, 15 percent of whom (contrary to Israeli law) served sentences of over six months in adult prisons.
Joseph Dana recently argued in his own review of Beinart’s book that such critiques are an essential entry point for saving Israel from itself:
Rigorous critique of Zionism, not Israeli settlements, is the first step towards safeguarding Israel as a haven for Jews while preventing the country from sliding deeper into moral bankruptcy.
I would argue that it is not just my right as a diaspora Jew, but my responsibility to engage in such rigorous critiques. Not to destroy Israel, but to protect it. To safeguard the country which long ago granted me an ownership stake, and which, at its founding, appealed to me for assistance in realizing the country’s redemption – a moral redemption that is increasingly becoming endangered.
A redemption increasingly standing on the precipice.
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