How Can We Talk About Israel?

A reader asked, “How do you talk to non-Jews about an Israel that’s less than perfect?”

I live in the capital-L Liberal San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles south of the University of California, Berkeley. I get the question on a regular basis: “How can you support Israel, and call yourself a decent person?”

In many ways I’m a typical resident of the “East Bay” – my politics are liberal. I didn’t start out that way, but various life experiences have made me into a definite social democrat.

I’m also a fervent Zionist, by which I mean that I believe there needs to be a place on the planet where Jews are in charge of our own fate. I think that because there’s a massive pile of evidence that when other people have power over us, especially if there is an established religion, they’ll treat us very badly. In the 20th century, nearly all the Jews of Europe were wiped out, and there are still people saying that that would have been a good thing.

So, the questioners ask, how do I resolve supporting Israel and being a decent person? Like a rabbi, I answer the question with a question: “Are you an American?” Usually the answer is yes, so I ask another question: “Do you approve of everything about America?” That brings a sputtering “No!” And then I can say, “Me, either,” which gives us some common ground.

I do not carry an Israeli passport, but I support Israel. Do I approve of everything about Israel? Heck no, any more than I approve of everything about America. Some things I disapprove of are common to both places!

I’m not going to give out a laundry list of things I would change about Israel any more than I would give a Russian newspaper a rundown of what I would change about America. However, I’ve got my list, and when I’m in a situation to act effectively upon it, I act. Right at the moment, there are so many people hating on Israel – saying that it has no right to exist whatsoever – that I prefer not to provide my words as ammunition for that chorus.

What bothers me most  is the attitude that Israel has no right to exist. I want to say, pray tell, where should the millions of Jews who live there go, if they are not to live in Israel? They were born there. It is their home. A few have been there since long before Zionism: that group was called The Old Yishuv. They’d been in Israel for a long, long time.

Note that I’m not talking about some kind of Biblical deed to the land. I base my understanding on the fact that the majority of Israelis today are the children of Jews who settled in the one place where they were allowed to go, in a place that as a group they had regarded as “home” for millennia. Others came by choice, most of them (admittedly not all) during periods when that choice was legal. Then, in 1948, the United Nations set an arbitrary line down what had been the British Mandate of Palestine and said, Jews on one side, Arabs on the other. The Jews promptly declared a state on their side of the land, and the next day armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded, intent on killing the Jews. Too few people cared about the Palestinian inhabitants of the land and that was tragic.  I admit that they were badly treated – by ALL parties.

I would like to see peace with justice for all, which means that no side will get everything they want. Especially it means that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, or fall into the sea, or otherwise just get out of the way. I don’t want an apartheid State of Israel, and I don’t want a Palestinian State that will bomb Israel forever with impunity.

What I want is for both sides to figure out a way to coexist. And maybe that isn’t possible, but I am unwilling to give up on it yet. I know for a fact that there are Israelis who want it, and Palestinians who want it, too.

What I know for certain is that there is no simple solution, and that anyone who uses the word “simple” in relationship to this problem is sadly misinformed or deluded.

In the meantime, I have millions of Jewish cousins in Israel. To me, that’s one thing being a Jew means:  that all the Jews in the world are my cousins.  I am going to worry about them, and be loyal to them, because we have this kinship. If I am upset with them, I’ll tell them privately, but I won’t hand the haters weapons to throw at them.

This may be more of an answer than my reader really wanted. It might be that all you need to do is ask the person you’re talking with, do they love everything about the country of which they are a citizen?  I guarantee you that there’s something they don’t like. Part of loving something – or someONE, for that matter – is knowing that they aren’t perfect. Either that, or you don’t know them well enough yet.

I would just caution you against trying to find agreement by listing all the things you don’t like about Israel. It will not persuade them. If they are antisemites, it will be ammunition. If, on the other hand, they are troubled by some of the choices Israel’s governments have made, a reminder that all governments fall short of the ideal may help them understand.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

14 thoughts on “How Can We Talk About Israel?”

  1. My beloved Hebrew school teacher, Reb Eisenstadt, never answered a question unless it was with a question. Rabbi Ruth you follow in his footsteps and eloquently so! Wonderful post!!!

  2. I remember back when Bush was the president a liberal Jewish friend of mine stating, “I’m ashamed to be Jewish when I see what Israel is doing.” I replied, “You must be in great shame to be an American right now.” She looked puzzled, “Why?” she asked. “Well, I know you don’t approve of our current foreign policy.” A look of understanding crossed her face and all she replied was, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

    We tend to be more highly identified with Israel than with America, and much better informed about America than Israel.

    Step one could be subscribing to Israeli news to see what’s happening there from the viewpoint of the citizens.

    Thank you for this post, Rabbi.

  3. Excellent answer to a real and hard question. I appreciate your framing an answer without being shrill or hostile or strident. Your reply is so helpful.

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