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Nurturing a Mature Love for Israel

Many American Jews do not feel as connected to Israel as they once did, or as Jews living in many other parts of the world do.

Israel is far away, perceived as scary, and speaks a language–Hebrew–which is, sadly, Greek to most American Jews. Despite the important work of programs such as Birthright Israel, our historic homeland seems to be drifting ever further toward the twin perils of irrelevance and nostalgia.

There is, of course, one additional factor to this trend, and that is the common portrayal over the past 15 years in particular of Israel as a bully, an occupier, and oppressor of the Palestinian people and perhaps its own Arab population as well. This portrayal is rooted far more in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias than in fact, and yet there are facts and policies and decisions that many American Jews legitimately find disturbing.


Perhaps this phenomenon is exacerbated because so many American Jews were raised with a picture of an Israel that has done and can do no wrong. The relentlessly pro-Israel position of nearly all mainstream American-Jewish institutions threatened to whitewash Israel’s actions. And it has created cognitive dissonance for many of the younger generation by describing a country and society that sounded very different from the articles they read in the media and the pictures they saw on the Internet.

And there’s a reason for that. Guess what? Israel isn’t perfect.

The American Jewish community needs to come to grips with this fact, instead of insisting on the usual idealized, black-and-white version that was long since rendered obsolete by the disturbing technicolor images that fill our TV and computer screens. The sooner we can recognize these facts, the sooner we can raise a generation of American Jews who love Israel and are committed to Israel in a way that honestly assesses and recognizes Israel’s shortcomings, rather than creating a more fragile and vulnerable commitment based on myopia.


Israel is our historic homeland, the place where our people and our religion were born. It is still the place where Jews most connect to our heritage and can most fully live in the Jewish civilization.

These points cannot be made and articulated enough. Yet we must do so in a way that honors both the imperfect reality of Israel and the integrity of Jewish life in the Diaspora, in a way that doesn’t ring false to those who hear us. Then we can hope to build a solid foundation of love and support for Israel that is organic because it genuinely reflects the experience of American Jews.

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posted February 2, 2006 at 4:39 am

For me personally, there is a difference between Israel as a spiritual homeland and Israel as a Zionist concept and creation. I feel deeply connected to Israel on a spiritual, religious, and historical level. As a Zionist project, however, I’m pretty ambivalent about it. I think this mixed opinion is common to a lot of other younger Jews as well. Also, I know this post is about American Jews, but there are a lot of other Jews in the world (including Israelis), and they do see Israel as tremendously central to Judaism and their personal lives. In my opinion, most American Jews today are used to a luxurious, “spoiled” way of life that, frankly, is modeled extensively after the dominant Christian paradigm — a spirited religious lifestyle that doesn’t demand serious commitment (i.e., major lifestyle changes) and emphasises spiritual vibrancy and cultural identity. Why should they bother learning a strange ancient language, or leave their suburban safety to see a volatile, hectic Middle Eastern country? And all the cultural trappings — including celebrating one or two “ethnic”-y holidays and occasionally attending synagogue — aren’t worth too much when 75% of one’s life is still devoted to assimilation. Until more Jews know why they are Jewish (instead of Christian or anything else) and what Judaism truly means for their lives, Israel will not remain relevant for those who lead comfortable, protected Diaspora lifestyles.

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posted February 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm

Excellent article; Excellent comment!

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Carroll Benjamin

posted February 2, 2006 at 4:23 pm

The question was, “is Israel still Central to Judaism?” I would say that certainly it is unless we feel the Creator is no longer interested in Israel or Israelies. I think that not the case though as His love for Israel is enduring forever. He never changes. I would ask though, “Is Judaism still Central to Israel?” from all I see and hear in America it is not. Israel becomes more and more secular every day. How discouraging this is for those who are distanced from their homeland. Any one who even slightly studies the prophets can see how history is repeating itself in Israel. If our homeland, our promised land, is not living up to the ideals of the people distanced from there, how would we expect our feelings to remain wholly attached to that homeland?

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posted February 2, 2006 at 5:33 pm

Of course Israel is central to Judaism! Don’t we say in our prayers, “If I should forget thee, or Jerusalem…”? That does not mean I feel all Jews need to live there, but I do feel it’s vital to support Israel. No other country in the world will support Jews without hesitation as does Israel. It was true after the Holocaust (granted, “Israel” was not established as a country at that time), and it’s true now.

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David Segsworth

posted February 2, 2006 at 10:52 pm

Who and what is Israel? What is Judaism? Are they just people and a place, or are they tools of change? I think the latter is true, so I’m envious they are there and I am here.

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posted February 3, 2006 at 2:07 am

It is still the place where Jews most connect to our heritage and can most fully live in the Jewish civilization. I’d like to respectfully disagree with that assertion. In his writings on Shabbat, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l) articulated the notion that after the Temple fell, the Jewish community connected with God via sanctified time rather than sanctified place. Israel was the landscape in which our early history played itself out, but I’m not sure I buy that it’s inherently holier than any other place, or that it enables us as Jews to connect more deeply and intimately with God. Indeed, I think that attitude disempowers Diaspora Jews and gives credence to the widespread notion that the Judaism we enact here isn’t “as holy” as what’s enacted in Jerusalem, which I think is ultimately an untenable position.

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sacred cow

posted February 3, 2006 at 11:47 pm

If religious identity is based on man’s territorial aggression I fail to see how such religious conceptualization helps anyone. Look at the history of religious warfare in the Holy Land and elsewhere and tell me, where is the goodness of God to be seen? Buried under corpses of the dispossessed? I don’t think so..

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Leah Paul

posted February 5, 2006 at 2:52 pm

American Jews need Israel more than they need the air that they breathe! The day is coming when there shall be more American Jews living in Israel than in the U.S. The day is coming when there shall be more English spoken in Israel than Hebrew. We shall be able to learn Hebrew at our own pace and not out of necesity. The day is coming that increased terrorist activity in THIS country shall make us turn our thoughts to the land of our forefathers. The day is coming when we shall be able to return to the holy land of Israel that G-d is blessing and prospering beyond belief and live in peace. The return of the Jews to the land of Israel validates the existence of our G-d and fullfils all the ancient prophecies fortelling this day.

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Lee Levy

posted February 5, 2006 at 3:12 pm

If Israel or Israelies were to lay down thier arms and give up their strength there would be no Israel. If the Arab world of Terrorist supporters would lay down their cash and guns there would be no war. Arrogance by Israelies who are on a war footing every day of thier lives is a necessity to survive. When Jeruselem and the western wall were in the hands of the Arabs did they allow us to pray, did they allow us to live. When Israel was weak did not all the Arab nations rattle sabers and go to war, only to find that G-d was on the side of the oppressed. Memories of Americans are short, Israel was paid for in blood, some of it was American. Never again will Jews be led to the slaughter by zelots who think they are the master race. If you are a Jew it does not matter where you live…..

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Rabbi Ed Schlaeger

posted February 5, 2006 at 5:44 pm

I applaud all of the comments that represent the diversity of American Jewish opinion. However, I do ask: how many of those who wrote the dissenting opinion above have ever been to Israel, as adults? Until each of us have experienced the psychological freedom and wellness that one experiences from the moment one enters Ben Gurion International and walks into the creation of those “Zionists” we will not be able to understand the impact of Zionism upon world Jewry. I do not mean to be offensive, but to compare the situation of Israel since 1948 to 70 C.E. is unproductive. In fact, we have very little of historical understanding of the psychological mentality of the Roman Empire’s Jewish Communities. Were those Jews, living in diaspora, comfortable? Were they proud of their Judaism? Were they suffering from similiar ambivalent states as we suffer from, living here in America as a minority social group? Were Diaspora Jewish communities influential upon the Roman and then upon the emerging Roman Christian Churchs and Sects? We know little… Since I so cherish the American Jew’s personal choices regarding Judaism and Israel (a right, in our country that is quickly being defaced) I would never suggest that only way to be Jewish is the Zionism. Or to suggest that American Jews, could, should or would ever move to the Contemporary State of Israel, en masse. However, until we experience Jewish Identity as a majority culture, not one American, critical of Israel who has not visited Israel will ever begin to be able to empathize with “Zionist Israel.” Kadimah

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posted February 5, 2006 at 9:38 pm

It is my belief, that God has sent the Jewish religion to all points of the globe so that in every prayer there is hope for all mankind. Israel is important, as it is the birth place of that hope.

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posted February 5, 2006 at 10:16 pm

I believe it was Achad HaAm (“One of the People”) who suggested that we need not have only one homeland. Israel is important, but it need not be the center of our Jewish existence, ie, our Jewish existence need not be unipolar.

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posted February 5, 2006 at 10:44 pm

In a way it is saying something like do catholics need the Vatican?

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posted February 6, 2006 at 3:56 am

jews since 1967 have made Israel the “central” part of jewish identity. ridiculous. judaism is a religion and a culture. the latter includes history of jews, which includes israel’s role, ancient and modern, in jewish culture. frankly israel’s role in jewish culture for the past thousand years is minimal, compared with Ashkenazic and Sephardic influences. My forefathers for generations spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew. It is a myth that most Jews believed they would be “redeemed” and return to Israel. Perhaps for the religious elite which ruled the Jews since the fall of the Second Temple. As for religion, what is the Jewish religion as opposed to culture, today. We know Orthodox Jews believe in a transcendent all powerful God and that evil and good will be judged in a World To Come. Who knows what other Jews, the majority in the world believe in? Many are agnostics, atheists, believers in God but not Kosher, pantheists, neo-Unitarians, secular liberals who believe Judaism is a metaphor for philanthropy or social work. No non-Orthodox rabbi has ever given me a satisfactory answer as to what Jews should believe about God. The late, great Mordechai Kaplan basically taught that we are god, in that godly traits like compassion can only be implemented by people. if so, what is the role for god for modern, non-Orthodox Jews? None, I would say in the midst of the thundering silence on this subject by modern conservative and reform rabbis who are engaged in Jewish Identity issues to the exclusion of definition of what Jews believe in, if anything, transcendentally. The usual answer that Jews are too busy doing good in this world to worry abpit such metaphysical questions rings hollow when we are asked to be Jews in a world where that may yet be a rather dangerous state of identity. but what then does Israel have to do with Jewish culture or religion? Except for the Orthodox, I would say not much given the unanswered questions Western Jews face about what being a Jew is in the first place. As Americans and as ethnic relatives to at least some Israelis, we wish Israelis well, as we would wish anyone with a similar background, from the same “family” well. But we don’t bail out our second and third cousins when they make foolish decisions or even when a neighborhood bully attacks them. We have our own problems, and our own “bullies” (Islamists and their left-wing apologists). Since Israel’s enemies right now are also America’s enemies, I’d suggest that Israel-worshippers in the American jewish community stop the hypocrisy that Jews=Liberals=Democrats. The Reform movement in particular must realize that the President and the coalition of Americans who are willing to fight Islamist fascism in Iraq, Iran and yes, in the US, are the best allies of Israel. How long would liberal Judaism last in an Islamist state, or in an America blackmailed by Islamist control of Middle East oil? Wave the US flag during your Seder. It will do you more good than any prayers for Israel.

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barry kravette

posted February 6, 2006 at 5:36 am

Do American Jews need Israel? more than ever.Should we be ashamed they are not perfect as the rabbi states? an emphatic NO. Is America perfect. absolutely no.Look at American history and see how it treated jews.America wanted Israel because the Russians wanted the new state to be under their control.Israel has the right to defend itself by any means available without wringing their hands in order to please the rest of the world.Rabbi,you are a disgrace to the people you claim to represent.

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posted February 6, 2006 at 2:15 pm

I am an American Jew, descended from four generations (1860’s) of American Jews, who can trace my ancestry back 900 years to the founding of Eishyshok. All branches of my American family were from Eastern Europe. We have always supported Israel, and have traveled extensively to and from Israel. But we are American Jews, and when we talk about our ‘roots’ we talk about Yiddish Europe and the shtetls. We love Israel, support Israel, and have fought and died for Israel over the last 50 years. But we do not “need” Israel. In fact, it seems to me often, that Israel needs us!

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posted February 6, 2006 at 11:12 pm

I think we should prepare and build for a worse-case scenario: The abandonment of the Israel State. Why? As Diaspora Jews, we’ve persevered and perhaps changed the world more in the absense of a homeland than in all the time that we had one. Judaism is the fruit of the Land of Israel and it must be tended or the contemporary and historic Israel will become irrelevant.

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Ramesh Jainani

posted February 7, 2006 at 3:41 am

Hello, Being a fearful man of GOD and following the commandments of GOD as commanded by Jesus we the Filipino people were one of the first asian nation to recognise Isreal as a Nation. This only shows that we love our God and HIS Chosen People as written in the Bible.

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S. Silverstein

posted February 7, 2006 at 5:49 am

I think these are dark times for many countries, including Israel & the USA. I commend President Bush for being so supportive of Israel’s right to exist. However, we must atone for what we have done to the Arabs & Palestinians that wound up in the filthy detention camps. Remember that Israel was founded in part of people just out of death camps. The “urban planning” & exchange of land was flawed. Did we think that dignified humans would come out of the Palestinian Resettlement Camps? Even today, I don’t see too many young Israelies at the fore of their political system. It’s still old men in their 70’s. The WWII generation. I will hold my tongue on Orthodox Jewery as I am a progressive Reform Jew and supporter of Rabbi Lerner & his Tikkun group. I deplore the sexist traditions of Jewish Orthdoxy, but the way they want to live should not be my business. I am an American Jew who, hopefully, will not ever have to live in Israel! I do see more Progressive Judaic organizing needed in Israel if we are to survive. Israel is not only imperfect; but we have sinned. We must atone & really recognize our wrong doing to our Arab/Palestenian neighbors. I am not advocating their bombs & current violence. I just thought we were supposed to be above that. When I was in Europe, I saw a version of CNN, that at that time was partially Al-Jazera. What a mess! If we do not start acting in a more humane manner; after all the centerpiece of our religion is “LOVE THY NEIGHBOR” — then the “Levee will Break”! Time to repent is now!

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Walter Fix

posted February 7, 2006 at 2:51 pm

Dear Rabbi Waxman, Thank you for this article. Being a gentile I don’t undersand all there is about Israel, but according to God’s Word in Psalms l22:6 we as the Lord’s children should pray for the peace of Israel. This I do almost each day. May our Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob bless Israel, especially in these times of great trouble. My prayer is that the Lord will give Israel a great leader to show His mercy to His people Israel. This will let them know that He is still on the throne guiding and protecting His people. Amen

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Walter Fix

posted February 7, 2006 at 2:51 pm

Dear Rabbi Waxman, Thank you for this article. Being a gentile I don’t undersand all there is about Israel, but according to God’s Word in Psalms l22:6 we as the Lord’s children should pray for the peace of Israel. This I do almost each day. May our Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob bless Israel, especially in these times of great trouble. My prayer is that the Lord will give Israel a great leader to show His mercy to His people Israel. This will let them know that He is still on the throne guiding and protecting His people. Amen

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Marvin Migdol

posted February 7, 2006 at 3:24 pm

There is enough negative publicity on Israel, much of it unwarrented. The article should focus more on the positive than the negatives. Sure, Israel can do wrong- but our beloved sister nation and homeland does so much right! Marvin Migdol, Dallas

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Stella Honeycutt

posted February 8, 2006 at 3:25 am

All Jews will one day return to israel and of course it is important to them and to us the Adopted Jew by The father God. Jesus is comming back whether people believe it or not.

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Azar Kahn

posted February 9, 2006 at 7:38 pm

The root cause of the confrontation should be analysed so as to determin the actual problem and thereby to treat it with positive approach,even desprate ,mad person can be admonished for the the right path

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Calvin Bogges

posted February 11, 2006 at 8:15 pm

Though raised by Jewish parents, have never had any great interest in, let alone affection for, Israel. The concept of a Jewish state in the Middle East is parallel to the concept of a white state in South Africa. Thank God South African apartheid is done away with. Regrettably the marginalization of the indigenous Palestinian population in Israel persists and is supported by the U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, it appears that some American Jews have a divided loyalty. To which flag do they really pledge allegiance? In the past, there was a suspicion that American Catholics were a fifth column on behalf of the Vatican. Today there is not an unreasonable apprehension about the loyalty of some American Jews. It pains me to read of Pollard and other traitors in the U.S. government who have passed classified documents to Israeli agents. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Israel should be a fully secular state, with secular marriage laws, and full participation in the political process for all its inhabitants of whatever race or religion. Just like in America. Enough of this “Jewish homeland” balderdash. And the bulldozed olive groves that have belonged to Palestinian families for generations should be restored to them. Calvin

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posted February 12, 2006 at 1:00 am

I think that those who confuse Judaism and a Jewish State are hurting the exercise of religion and spirituality generally. The Vatican used to control the middle of Italy and at that time the Romans tried often to kill the Florentines and likewise with the other city states until there was leadership in the form of Garibaldi, King Victor Emmanuel, Cavour, the chief Minister of the King. If the Italians can come to their senses after hundreds of years longer internecine struggle so can the Jews and others in the Middle East. For a much greater percentage of time the Muslims and Jews got along – and the Koran gives homage to the Jews as the ‘original people.’ There is no real ‘clash of civilizations’ only distortions caused by last of democracy and many tottering dictatorships upheld by outside forces. Someday there will be protection for the practice and everyday lives of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and others. See: for more about how this direction.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 6:40 pm

It is sad but in a way amusing that people who have never lived in Israel, never cared about it, and are fat and happy in America, should dictate to Israel and the people who love her how she should be. And to be more than happy to turn it over to murderers and terrorists. I just wish they would learn some history before accepting propaganda.

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