True Zionism means asking the hardest questions

I am on a hilltop in one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, with a delegation of twenty-some Israeli, North American (and one British) rabbis. Our travels are organized by Rabbis for Human Rights, and we have spent the previous several days becoming acquainted with various aspects of their work of challenging and healing political and economic wounds in Israel and the occupied territories.

Today we are meeting with the mayor of the settlement to hear his perspective. He is impressively blunt. At one point he poses a query: "Is Israel first a Jewish state or first a democracy?" And he answers his own question: "You have to decide. To me Israel is first a Jewish state."

I was stunned by this exchange. I have never heard anyone who cares for Israel — much less a settler — question whether Israel is a democracy. I've occasionally wondered about this in the privacy of my own heart. But I had no idea such things could be said aloud.

I have found it difficult this past couple of years to even have a civil conversation with others in my community about Israel. The discourse seems so binary: either you love Israel or you are anti-Israel. Love equals pride; opposition equals hatred. Which side are you on?

I was 9 years old in 1967, when, as a consequence of defending itself in a war, Israel became an occupier. This is basically the only Israel I have ever known. As I, along with the rest of the world, came to know more about the occupation, I began gradually to close my heart to Israel. I lived there for a year in school and took a sabbatical there a few years ago. But I couldn't quite say that I loved Israel. I simply withdrew from the conversation.

Only with regard to patriotism does love have to equal pride. We all know from our personal relationships that love is a complicated thing, that sometimes we can hold a huge amount of pain and discouragement and still love someone deeply. We can love even when we are far from being proud of our beloved. But to love honestly and truly, one must have a very large heart. Love must coexist with clear vision. Hard questions must be asked and answered.

On our mission with Rabbis for Human Rights, I heard a very different kind of conversation about Israel than I had ever heard before. I heard brave, frightening questions asked and answered by all sorts of people: is Israel in fact a democracy? Does the present level of violence arise from unbearable social conditions? To what degree is Israel's present economic crisis precipitated by the country selling its soul to globalization? How should Jews manage power and privilege? Does Torah condone violence and xenophobia? Parallel questions exist for conscientious Palestinians. Over the years I have thought about every one of these issues, but I have been too intimidated by our binary communal discourse to speak them aloud.

I was particularly moved by the leaders of Rabbis for Human Rights — Rabbi David Forman, who founded RHR, and Rabbi Arik Aschermann, its executive director, chief among several. David and Arik both spoke of themselves as Zionists who, precisely out of love for Israel, daily put their bodies and souls on the line to struggle towards a more just state. "This is the true Zionism," I heard each say more than once.

In Israel with our teachers of Torah and justice, with the members of our delegation, and with a truly heroic assembly of Jewish and Palestinian activists, bereaved family members of both peoples and individuals across the spectrum of both societies who are reaching beyond their own outrage towards the other, I began to feel my own heart melt. In this kind of conversation — in which so many contradictions can be held in human hearts — I, too, can love Israel.

I return home committed to speaking out more volubly for the path I hope and pray will be followed in the days ahead. But equally much, I return home wanting to see the conversation among Jews here be as spacious, as self-reflective, as brave and relentless as I found it on the hill in a settlement two weeks ago. The unaskable questions need to be asked — and answered — l'shem tzedek, for the sake of justice, definitely, but every bit as much l'shem ahavat tzion, for the love of Zion.