Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Tough Questions

Its been said that all an average student needs to become excellent is to be fortunate enough to experience one outstanding teacher. That relationship will provide the inspiration for a lifetime. In fact many of us have had such singular encounters that has left an indelible mark on our lives: I was lucky enough in the 60’s to have encountered a teacher in Camp Moshava (Wild Rose, Wisconsin). Avraham Nuriel z”l, a shaliach to our community (later became a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University) spent the summer in Moshave teaching us the geography and history of Israel, but special was the daily class on the teachings of Harav Cook. Those informal learning experiences sparked discussion among the campers and it’s those conversations especially that have accompanied me all these years. I’m not always aware of those discussions, but invariably something triggers those memories recounting those conversations, which bring me back to Avraham Nuriel and his understanding of Harav Cook.

The two burning issues that concerned us young Zionists in the years just prior to the 67 war were two hypotheticals: What if America and Israel would no longer be allied and their interest were at cross purpose, where would our loyalties be? What if Israel was no longer a democratic state becoming something other than democratic i.e. fascistic or theocratic, would we still chose to live there? Would we still support Israel assuming that we lived in America? At the time these were merely hypothetical, given to mental gymnastics, because no matter what we said, it really didn’t matter. Israel was a secure ally of America enjoying support from Congress, the Executive branch and Israel was the darling of the media. I never imagined then that those two rather simple questions would haunt me a half century later. Nor would I be recalling those heady intellectual conversations sitting under a tree while Avraham helped us work through what I understand now to be extremely complex issues.

There is a side of me, the youthful traces which wants me to believe that these two questions ought to be consigned forever to undisturbed memory, stored there for another time. No need for concern, certainly no need for panic. President Obama may lean toward the Palestinians but Congress has our back. Besides, even if Obama wins another 4 years, Israel can stonewall him until his term ends. The damage he can do while significant may be reversible with a more even handed president. Regarding democracy, my still youthful, optimistic shadow believes that Jews have embedded within our DNA democratic values. We are an “am kishe oref” (stiff necked people), argumentative, not given to indulge others, brutally honest, demanding of our government, with a history of cut throat journalism that is the backbone of a true democratic system.

The other side of me, the more seasoned mature side that has seen life in its beauty and ugliness is skeptical about our future as a democracy and as an ally of the United States. Less concerning for the moment is the issue of our relationship with America because; as long as Israel is a strong democracy there will be support for Israel. If however we begin a tailspin that undermines democratic values then our nexus with American Jews and ipso facto America will wane. I wince at the thought that while we are not in a tailspin yet there are undemocratic trends, which ought to flag our attention and concern. The fact that Hillary Clinton made her remark in a private setting expressing her concern for the marginalization of women within Israeli society ought to be taken seriously. There are other glaring examples many of them emanating from the religious communities whether haredi, hardal or any other flavor. It appears as though the haredi community less tolerant of secular Israel is trying to impose its way on the majority. To wit: a lecture at a community center in Haifa had haredi ushers direct women in (in spite of their reluctance) to the back of the hall, assuring that the men and women were separated. It oughtn’t be open season on Muslims or secular Jews because there is a strong haredi coalition in the Knesset. The bus incident with Tanya Rosenblit makes me wonder if she will become the new Rosa Parks of Israel.

The West, including Israel is hyper critical of the Muslim penchant for their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran with the exponent that their women are treated like chattel. I am beginning to sense the same tendencies within the hyper-religious community who happen to be the loudest and most visible with Israeli society and who occupy seats in the Knesset thus highly influential on multiple levels. This trend will continue and will slowly erode the matrix of Israeli democracy unless the governing body in its wisdom draws a line between church and state.

Israel will do well if it learns from Greece. The Greeks too are closely aligned with its religion, Greek Orthodoxy. Because Greek orthodoxy is interwoven into the fabric of society there is no separation of Church and State. One can hardly be Greek and not be Greek Orthodox. Their way out of this conundrum are the dictates of the European Union which are enforcing certain steps to untangle the state from the Church. Israel ultimately will have to do the same thing if it wishes to safeguard its democratic values.

As hard as I find it to imagine Israel living under a non-democratic system of government I can’t fathom what it would do to American Jews. Probably the ultra religious ties with Israel would grow tighter as the ties with the liberal communities in America would grow weaker. Concomitantly, liberal lobbying for Israel would curtail, as would philanthropy: the American Jewish community turning inward, marshalling its resources to service their own needs.