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Israel still David complex, heroic, less than perfect, but no underdog

I’ve been the professional leader of the David Project for less than two years, but have been told by many who were around the table 10 years ago when the organization was founded that it was so named because the founders believed that Israel, once widely considered “David” in David and Goliath, was now perceived by many as “Goliath.”

Goliath, as you will recall, was the giant, well-armored Philistine warrior who was defeated by a young David with nothing but a slingshot. The David Project was formed to reclaim Israel’s reputation as David — the underdog.

Since its inception, the David Project has been devoted to transforming the campus environment concerning Israel. In the early days, we tended to use a take-no-prisoners approach to advocacy, aggressively highlighting anti-Israel activities and calling out the detractors. Today we focus more on making a positive, nuanced case for Israel with influential segments of the campus community. Now, as then, we also train educators who teach our Israel education curricula in more than 120 day schools across the country.

One of my David Project colleagues told me about a teacher at a Jewish day school in the United States who was not in favor of using the David Project’s curriculum on the Arab-Israel conflict. “Do you still stand by the concept behind the David Project name?” he asked. “Yes,” my colleague answered. The teacher was obviously opposed to using a high school curriculum whose authors see Israel as the righteous party in the conflict.

Maybe because I was named after him myself, I’ve always been fascinated by King David. He possessed both incredible leadership and fatal flaws. I have long been riveted by the king who, when presented with the head of his mortal enemy, King Ish-Bosheth, had the assassins killed for murdering an innocent man. David was both compassionate and ruthless.

After I graduated college, I spent some time studying at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. One of the teachers led a discussion on King David in which he claimed that the famous story of his adultery with Batsheva (and then having her husband killed in battle) wasn’t accurate. David was far too morally upstanding for such treachery, the teacher suggested. The Torah, he stated, offered up the adultery story as a metaphor for David’s sinning in God’s eyes.

Participants in a teacher training last year in Florida play the David Project game.

I was outraged by the whitewashing of my biblical hero! David was no 20th-century Orthodox Jew, but rather a king of ancient Israel who exercised power under great political and moral duress. His sins made him far more accessible and interesting. I still prefer that complex portrait of David.

All of which makes me think about that Jewish day school teacher who asked if the David Project stood by its name. If I were confronted with that same question from that same skeptical teacher today, I would still answer, “Yes, we believe Israel is the David.”

I would add, however, that our David need not be reduced to the underdog hero who defeated a physically superior Philistine, but can also be understood as the imperfect but ultimately righteous leader in the biblical narrative. Our David — our Israel — can be flawed but just.

Unfortunately, some diaspora Jews seem to think that Israel must be morally pure in order to deserve their support. Others persist with the myth that Israel is morally pure, incapable of doing wrong. The real Israel, like the real David, is decent but imperfect. Heroic but occasionally afraid. It has had to fight for its survival in a very challenging security and political environment. Like David, it is faced almost daily with excruciating moral choices among an ever-changing set of less-than-ideal options.

Rather than fleeing at the first sign of misbehavior, Jews should support Israel in the face of an unjust attack against her very right to exist. We simply cannot ignore the well-organized, well-funded effort to turn the Jewish state into an international pariah. We must do everything we can to counter this Goliath, disadvantaged though we may be, by showing the true face of Israel. Israel is our David, warts and all.


David Bernstein
is the executive director of the David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

David Bernstein is the founder of the Maryland-based Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidLBernstein.