New intifada challenges American Jews to aid Israel

Remember the good old days of the Persian Gulf War, when Israel was battered by Iraqi missiles and didn't shoot back? Then it was clear who were the good guys and who were the bad. Then everyone loved us, and that helped American Jews love us even more.

Not so simple today. The new intifada is being fought in a gray zone between right and wrong, and that has made it much harder for American Jews to connect to Israel.

It has made my job more difficult as well. A year ago at the Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center, we would dream up fun and fulfilling ways for people to identify with Israel and their own Jewishness. Now we talk more in terms of our responsibility and duty to support Israel in its time of need. It has become harder for us all to celebrate Israel's very existence when it looks like a colonial power, embroiled in a no-win conflict.

My identification with Israel isn't a choice. As an Israeli brought here to represent Israel in the Jewish community, I see it as my life. I miss the spring anemones that bring life to the hills surrounding the Dead Sea. I long for heated debates with friends over Shabbat dinner. I miss Israelis in uniform and the safety enabling my daughter to walk home from babysitting late at night. I even miss the Israelis who race me to be first in line, hang over my shoulder at the ATM and use their cell phones in the strangest places. Israel is where I fit. It's where I flourish.

But American Jews get to choose. And, right now, choosing is harder — and more important — than ever. Israel's current reality is exceedingly complex and challenges many of the precepts on which world Jewry has based its relationship with Israel. Suddenly, Israel needs political, moral and economic support in ways unseen since the Lebanon war of the 1980s.

At the same time, opinion on (and in) Israel has grown increasingly polarized. A number of American Jews, mainly right-leaning, have become much more outspoken in Israel's defense. They provide valuable and welcome support, as well as confirmation of what has become majority opinion in Israel.

But theirs is not majority opinion in the United States. Many more American Jews are quietly re-evaluating how they feel about Israel in light of the negative headlines, the continued bloodshed, the increasing use of military strength and the distressing lack of a clear and quick solution. For them, thinking about Israel has become uncomfortable. Defending Israel and soul-searching can't coexist. This silent majority is turned off by the rhetoric of cheerleaders for both teams — pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. It's easier to opt out.

Neither Israeli nor American Jewry can afford that. Without the support and identification of world Jewry, Israel will founder in isolation. Moreover, Israel needs world Jewish help in addressing the economic, ideological and social challenges that will truly determine its future as a just society that can meet the needs of all its citizens and gain permanent standing among the family of nations, including its closest neighbors.

Among world Jewry, it's as if the Second Son (or Wicked Child) in the Passover seder is asking, "Of what purpose is this work to you?" (Exodus 12:26). He says "to you," thereby excluding himself from the community and thus denying this basic principle of Judaism.

In many Jewish communities, Israel has become a binding symbol of independent kin, an important link for the Jewishly affiliated and a life insurance policy for the Jewish future. Assimilation runs rampant because religious affiliation can't compete with economic comfort. But family can. And, for many, Israel can provide that sense of family — of belonging to a larger body called the world Jewish people.

For all these reasons, opting out shouldn't be an option. Our relationship is deeper and more important than politics, and there are still plenty of nonpolitical ways to engage with Israel. What's more, American Jews of every political persuasion can still find an Israeli faction to identify with and many ways to express their support.

American Jews need to readjust themselves to current realities. First, this conflict won't be solved in television time — with two hours to a happy ending. It will take at least several years of additional fighting, and human and material losses, to bring both sides to a readiness to make peace, a readiness that Israel reached once before. Both sides must come to the realization that neither can destroy the other and the true recognition that the conflict can only be ended by mutual compromise.

Second, even after an agreement, peace will likely be more of a cease-fire between suspicious neighbors than the cozy embrace between such neighbors as Belgium and France.

Third, Israel must be supported despite conflicted feelings about who is to blame for the current impasse. This means continuing to visit Israel even if it means not traveling on buses or avoiding the Old City. It means recognizing that the connection to Israel is about much more than a political affiliation. And, most importantly, it means not turning off Israel the way you can turn off a video. The stakes are too high.