4 Questions That Will Change Your Relationship With Israel
These four questions will enable you to see Israel, Zionism, and Israelis in an entirely different light.
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Growing up as a Jew in Los Angeles, I knew next-to-nothing about Israel.
This was before social media and the Internet as we know it, and we never talked about Israel in our Jewish home. The only thing I remember from Hebrew school about Israel is that she’s the size of New Jersey.
Every now and again, I would see something about Israelis and Palestinians on the news, which only painted a meager picture.
Then, on a trip to Israel, I “woke up” to Israel, Zionism, and Israelis. Suddenly I felt tremendous joy about these subjects — what we can call “The Four Questions.”
The Four Questions enable you to see Israel, Zionism, and Israelis in an entirely different light.
If you go through these questions (and your answers to them), you may discover that they can also be applied to Judaism as a whole, and even other aspects of your life.
The four questions (with examples) are:
1) Is it true?
Are you aware that so much of what we tell ourselves is just assumptions? One assumption leads to another; we jump to conclusions; and we take our assumptions so very seriously, and so very personally. Then we start gossiping to help us justify our assumptions, and a distorted concept becomes exponentially more distorted.
Now, think about the assumptions we make in the Jewish world:
Assumptions about other Jews (e.g. Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, partial Jews and full Jews, born Jews and converted Jews)
Assumptions about Israel
Assumptions about Israeli Jews and assumptions about Diaspora Jews
Assumptions about Zionism and Zionists
Assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Assumptions about Palestinians and the Middle East
Here’s a story for you: When Jewish survivors of the Holocaust arrived in Israel, many of them were shamed by Jews already living in Israel during this atrocity: Why didn’t you fight back? and How could you let them do that to you? the locals would say to them. True story. All these shaming Jews knew was what they read in the newspapers, heard on the radio, and perhaps some hear-say.
Instead of asking survivors what really happened, they jumped to conclusions based on quite minimal information. And it’s not like these survivors landed in Israel happy-happy-joy-joy, eager to pour out their unimaginable traumas to anyone who would lend an ear or two.
Today, Holocaust survivors are universally celebrated in Israel, with initiatives to preserve their stories on videotape, as well as organizations dedicated to supporting the diminishing group of Holocaust survivors, such as one called Adopt-A-Safta (safta meaning grandmother in Hebrew) which pairs young adults with aging survivors to create interpersonal companionships. And of course there’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which offers complimentary entrance to visitors.
So, what exactly changed in Israel? Survivors started talking about their stories, and the rest started listening with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together.
If we would just ask more questions — with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together — we could rather quickly fan the flames of this pressing desire that results in knee-jerk assumption-making.
Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, calls this “making space for each other” which means “transcending our ego, rising above ourselves, and developing the capacity to show understanding, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us.”1
2) Can you absolutely know it’s true?
It’s easy to make generalizations, and that’s where this second question comes in. Sure, on the surface, something might be partially true, but is it absolutely true?
The answer, in most cases, is no — because life is filled with nuance. For example, if you’ve never lived in Israel, or had an intimate relationship with an Israeli, it can be hard to understand the dissent that many Israelis feel toward Arabs (i.e. Arab Israelis, the Palestinians, and Middle Eastern Arabs in general).
Yet the thousands of Israelis I’ve met were not born this way; nor were they instructed by their families from an early age to feel unfavorably about Israelis; nor were they educated as such in school.
Instead, they’ve been scarred and traumatized by the wars, violence, military operations, and terror attacks — all involving Arabs and celebrated by many Arabs. Just take my 75-year-old Israeli cousin, who’s lived through more than five full-blown wars, dozens of military operations, and innumerable terror attacks.
When I moved to Israel in 2013, I couldn’t understand these scars and traumas. I would argue with Israelis, claiming that “not all Arabs are the same” and “it’s just a loud minority.” Both of which can be true.
But what’s also true is that Israelis have endured so much emotional, psychological, and — for some — physical pain because of Arabs. And one doesn’t cancel out the other out.
This is why I have tremendous empathy for Israelis, and I understand why many of them are single-issue voters (security). I too have become more conservative in my voting since 2013 as I increasingly understand the complex reality on the ground here in Israel and across the Middle East.
But I also believe we should try, in good faith, to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and better engage Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, while not making the same mistakes we’ve made before (such as unilateral withdrawal from Gaza).
The point is, there’s a ton of nuance involved in mainstream Israeli society, in Arab Israeli society, among the Palestinians and their factions, et cetera. The bedrock of this nuance is history, and in our histories, we have countless scars and traumas, many of which dictate how people think, feel, act, and behave today.
I don’t think most of us are truly evil; I just think we’re incredibly scarred and traumatized, and we haven’t learned how to properly resolve these scars and traumas, so that we can truly put them behind us. (I’m talking about people in general here, not just Israelis.)
Instead, we profusely attack, prosecute, and label people without trying to understand their life experiences — their scars and traumas. Is this an effective approach to bringing about positive solutions? Or does it just make people dig further and further into their holes, thus pushing us further away from collaboration and cooperation?
3) How do you react when you believe that thought?
Does believing your unexamined thought about Israel, Zionism, or Israelis make the situation better or worse? Does it help or hurt?
Are you resentful, bitter, caustic, or closed off? Do these behaviors make you appreciate Israel more or less? Do your behaviors help you get the validation you want?
Now, take your thought and practice an opposite statement. For example, if your original thought is, “I wish Israel was more democratic,” rephrase the statement in the opposite direction, such as:
I wish the country I live in was more democratic.
I wish I was more democratic.
Are any of these opposite statements true or truer than your original thought? If so, that’s okay. All it means is that it’s time to be less tied to your original thought.
4) Who or what would you be without the thought?
Would you be happier, more content, more at peace? Would you feel free of the resentment of your unfulfilled expectations?
Changing nothing about Israel, in the moment you’re unable to believe the thought, what’s different? Would you be more appreciative of Israel and find more opportunities to connect with the country, the people, the culture, et cetera?
Would you realize that no country is perfect and it’s unfair to expect one country to be so? Would you think and talk about Israel, Zionism, and Israelis in a different way?
As you go through this exercise, I invite you to consider your thoughts about Israel, Zionism, and Israelis, and how you might answer these questions. Who knows — you mind find yourself on a much more beneficial path!
Goldstein, Warren. “Striving for unity among the Jewish people is a practical undertaking.” The Jerusalem Post. May 31, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/striving-for-unity-among-the-jewish-people-is-a-practical-undertaking-629786.