Sam Lauter at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Sam Lauter at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

I’m struggling, but I will always fight for the Israel I love

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Like many Zionists in the diaspora, I’ve been struggling with how I engage with my Zionism and passion for Israel while the current government continues to espouse and pursue policies that I find problematic at best and abhorrent at worst. And, like many of my Zionist friends, I have been asked repeatedly how I’m dealing with my struggle.

The first time I remember being conscious of my love affair with Israel was when I was 7 and my family took our first trip to see our homeland. I was already conscious of our family relationship to Judaism and Zionism, but it was that trip that made me feel my own connection.

My next trip at 15 was for several weeks with my confirmation class from Congregation Beth Sholom and a handful of other Bay Area synagogues. It was this trip that left an undeniable and conscious imprint — I knew then there was no question Israel was always going to be an integral part of my essence.

Today, some 20-odd visits later, my feelings have continued to grow. Occasionally I feel almost overwhelmed by my passion. Yet I cannot deny I love the feeling. And even with almost 40 years of being a pro-Israel activist, I still feel I can and should do more.

Given that my activism has been very, and purposefully, public, it makes sense people have asked me how I feel about the new Israeli government. The questions are typically along the lines of “How are you dealing with this new government” or “Are you going to give up on Israel now?” I’ve been asked by some to “condemn” Israel, as if my voice would even matter or, more important, if that would even be an effective strategy. More than one friend has told me they are going to protest by not visiting Israel until there’s a new government.

Sam Lauter at the Western Wall with the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in 2016.
Sam Lauter at the Western Wall with the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in 2016.

I once wrote “I often find myself hugging and wrestling with Israel at the same time.” I acknowledged my life could be easier if I just walked away. But my life would be entirely incomplete, I would not be the same person. Israel is central to my soul, to my very being.

So, “give up”? Never. Instead, I know it’s time for quite the opposite reaction. I admit I’ve spent some time sitting shiva. But shiva ends and then it’s time to move forward. So, how? When someone you love needs you, at least from your perspective, do you leave them to fend for themselves? No, you embrace them. You embrace them harder than you ever have before, and work with those who see a way toward healing what you perceive as ailing.

Israel has never been about the government for me, nor, quite frankly, every square inch of our indigenous land. Israel is so much more than that. It is an ideal, a place where my people can be who we are, where we can live openly as Jews without qualification, without being told that maybe you should wear a hat to cover your kippah or put that star inside your shirt. Where our many cultures can thrive and blend into one beautiful painting. And, yes, it’s also the place where we can defend our people, something history has repeatedly proven can never be taken for granted.

But Israel is also about the feeling I get when I step off the plane and know I’m home. It’s about the sights, sounds and smells, about the ancient ruins and futuristic skyscrapers, the stunning beaches of the coast, the gorgeous desert of the south and the verdant rolling hills of the north. It’s about the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv being only 45 minutes away in one sense, and 2,000 years apart in another.

More than anything, it’s about the people. They have arrived from every corner of the Earth, returned home to help rebuild our homeland. A truly remarkable people facing challenges those of us in the diaspora can’t begin to understand, no matter how much we may have experienced some of it. Those challenges, however, have also led to the test Zionists like me are facing today.

Israel is far from perfect, nor should we expect any country to be. But I believe Israel has consistently strived for perfection. While I can’t say I truly feel that now, I know the Israel I love hasn’t gone anywhere and is worth fighting for.

So, embrace and fight I will. I will spiritually stand by the tens of thousands who are marching through the streets of Israel and raising their voices opposed to ideas that are going too far. I will physically stand with them when I return to Israel in May. I will search for and work with organizations articulating an intelligent opposition while continuing to stand with Israel. Because just as I didn’t oppose my home, the United States, when the prior administration was in power, but instead fought for the vision I have of what America can be, I will do the same for my homeland.

Jews have only one Israel. Our people were born there. We’ve prayed to return for thousands of years from every corner of the planet. And we finally did. For the last 75 years Israel has shown an incredible resiliency born of love and necessity. President Biden is fond of telling a story about the first time he met Prime Minister Golda Meir. “We have a secret weapon, Senator Biden,” she said. “We have nowhere else to go.”

In one sense I also have nowhere else to go. I have no other Israel. So, embrace and fight I will.

Join me?

Sam Lauter
Sam Lauter

Sam Lauter is a board member of Democratic Majority for Israel and A Wider Bridge, on the National Council of AIPAC, and an appointee of President Biden to the United States Holocaust Museum Board of Trustees.