In the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, Israelis have begun a round of soul-searching into what went wrong. How was it that Israel’s vaunted military–the pride of a nation and unquestionably the best-equipped army in the region–could barely make progress against a few thousand militiamen? Of the many casualties of this war, one will surely be the myth of Israeli invincibility, and this will have repercussions for Jews throughout the world.
In truth, this myth was already in questionable shape–the last entry into Lebanon in 1982, the intractable intifadas of the last 20 years – these have taken their toll on the Israeli psyche. For those American Jews raised on glorious stories of 1948, 1967 and, to a lesser extent, 1973, these debacles can be disorienting. But the truth is that for a younger generation of American Jews, these long, complex, and painful stand-offs have been the norm and not the exception. The clean, morally unambiguous victories of the past fall into the realm of history and nostalgia. For Jews around the world, the question is: How does our relationship with Israel change when it is no longer identified with legendary military prowess?
Some, perhaps, will not question their relationship with Israel, seeing it as the victim of international opprobrium despite being the country that was, after all, attacked. But for many, this turn of events with lead to some sort of reevaluation, whether conscious or not, of their feelings toward Israel.
Most American Jews’ relationships with Israel were built on a steady diet of glossy images of Israel, reinforced through synagogues, Jewish community centers, Israeli promotional material, and missions. Just recently, I attended a performance by the Tzofim–Israeli teen scouts who serve as cultural ambassadors. The image they presented through their performance–of kibbutzim, of falafel, of making the desert bloom, of Jewish unity, of a mighty IDF–was better-suited to the Israel of Golda Meir than that of Ehud Olmert. If American Jews are going to build the sustainable, organic connections with Israel necessary to forge support for the next generation, then the picture needs to be updated as well so they don’t suffer a bout of cognitive dissonance every time they pick up a newspaper.
Israel needs and deserves our support. But we need to understand that the country we are supporting is not a one-dimensional Israel: It is a place with deep social, political, and religious divisions. Nor is it the country that defeated four surrounding armies in six days in the 1960s. And if the myth of Israel’s military might is displaced, I personally think this will lead to a healthier relationship with Israel and our own Jewish identities–rooted not in a feeling of pride based on superior military strength but rather on a relationship grounded in love of the land, learning, integrity, and justice.