Blogging my AIPAC Rabbinic Mission – Day 1

As I write this note, I am sitting in a beautiful and bustling section of downtown Jerusalem, surrounded by the grandeur of the ancient city and the dynamism of the modern city’s nightlife. A soft wind swirls around me, cutting through a majestic evening. I have just begun an educational mission for rabbis sponsored by AIPAC, the organization that strives to strengthen support for Israel among our country’s leaders. While I tried hard to remain “unplugged” for my first two weeks of vacation here, I aim to communicate more directly, albeit on a limited basis, in the hopes that I can share my experiences with you.

I begin with an admission of sorts: while I am passionate about my Zionism and my love for the land, state, and people of Israel, I am something of an AIPAC skeptic. On the one hand, I believe that AIPAC is singularly instrumental in assuring that our country’s leaders embrace the dream of Zionism and work to ensure the security of the Jewish State. On the other hand, I sometimes also feel that AIPAC’s power and influence in Washington could be utilized more effectively to advance the causes of social justice within Israel and a lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, especially the Palestinians. I accepted the invitation to participate in this trip precisely because of that tension. I feel it is important for me to be pushed past my comfort-zone, to hear perspectives with which I struggle, and to encounter as many voices as possible. Only then can I approach somewhere approximating truth regarding issues that, to put it lightly, are complex and contentious. Encounters like these are crucial, and deeply Jewish.

Our first program was a conversation with journalist Herb Keinon of The Jerusalem Post, a popular right-leaning Israeli daily. Over a delicious dinner at Touro, a new restaurant in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood overlooking the Old City, Keinon offered his take on the current mood of the Israeli public. Keinon observed that, if one looks at recent Israeli politics, one will note that Israelis have consistently elected right-wing governments for the past 15 years. His explanation of this phenomenon is that the traumatic experiences of the Second Intifada, the Disengagement from Gaza (which was followed by Hamas rule, rocket fire, and a handful of wars), and current regional instability have contributed to an underlying sense of profound insecurity among the Jewish Israeli public. Israelis continue to elect right-wing governments because, for them, the number one issue is security, and they believe that no other political bloc can deliver on that issue. Israelis are willing to reprioritize virtually every other issue in light of security concerns. This despite the fact that there are seriously compelling domestic issues that need to be tackled, among them the fact that a quarter of Israel’s citizens live in poverty, including 850,000 children, and the cost-of-living is increasingly unbearable for even middle-class Israelis. Keinon claimed that the only way Israelis would change their voting habits (focus on the economy, vote for left-leaning parties, support overtures for peace with the Palestinians and others, etc.) is if, somehow, their security could be assured.

The presentation was compelling, but it left me with some unanswered questions: Is the Israeli electorate’s emphasis on national security short-sighted? Even if Israeli leaders succeeded in making the state totally secure from all its enemies, can Israel long exist as a Jewish and democratic state without a just peace with the Palestinians? What will Israel look like in another 15 years if elections continue to be about security while economic inequality widens, and other domestic challenges fester (religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews among them)? Can peace be possible when the Palestinian people clearly have similar insecurities about the trustworthiness of their Israeli counterparts and their own safety under Israeli rule? Does the election of muscular, often hawkish, right-wing governments create conditions that reinforce the sense among the Palestinian public that there is no willing partner for peace, compelling them to adopt tactics – both violent and nonviolent – that reinforce Israelis’ insecurities about Palestinian trustworthiness? Is Israel, a country with vast economic and military resources, really as vulnerable as its public believes and its right-leaning politicians claim? Are the politicians’ claims sincere or opportunistic (on this point, Keinon insisted that Netanyahu’s fear-based politics are not cynical, but are rather rooted in his belief that the fears are well-founded, and that it is his historic role to protect the Jewish people from another Holocaust)? Are Israelis’ insecurities justified or, in some sense, imagined due to the painful scars of Jewish history? And can those scars ever sufficiently heal in time for Israel to take the risks that will be necessary to forge a just and lasting peace?

I leave these as open questions for us all to consider. I look forward to hearing some perspectives on these and many other matters tomorrow, when we meet with members of Knesset and various experts from across the political spectrum (including, importantly, from the Israeli Arab community).

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