“Justify My Love": J-Street’s Obsession with "Loving Israel"

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November 3, 2009

The J-Street conference in Washington D.C, which I attended last week, reminded me of stories I read about the first few Zionist Congresses. Like those first Zionist Congresses, Jstreet was filled with a hearty mix of enthusiasm, optimism and healthy confusion. I almost wished, however, that Jstreet attendees had been more willing to engage in the kind of spirited battles the early Zionists had about the very nature of their mission and goals. What struck me as particularly odd about the Jstreet conference was the number of times presenters and members of the audience spoke the words “I love Israel.” It seemed to be a kind of mantra, said with such conviction and matter-of-factness that I soon realized I had no idea what people meant by it and I suspected that neither did they.

“I love Israel.” What exactly does that mean? I know what it means to love my child, my family, my partner, my parents, even my dog. Love is relational, it is reciprocal, it is personal. What exactly is Israel as an object of love? Is it the state? Its people? The land? The idea? How can I love the people, most of whom I don’t know? From what I know of them I can say with some confidence that I don’t love Baruch Goldstein, or Yigal Amir, or Meir Kahane, or Moshe Levinger (and I am quite sure they don’t love me either).

We all have emotional attachments to lands of various sorts, but does that constitute love? I love the feeling of standing on the north ridge of the Grand Canyon, but I don’t love the Grand Canyon. I love the view of Mount Hermon from Rosh Pina, but I don’t love the mountain. And what about an idea?

Martin Buber and Hermann Cohen had a very lively debate about whether one can love an idea. In an essay “The Love of God and the Idea of Deity: On Hermann Cohen,” Buber criticized Cohen’s view of God as an idea. How can one love an idea, Buber asked? “He who loves God precisely insofar as he is not ‘only an idea,’ and can love him because he is not ‘only an idea.’…He who loves God loves the ideal and loves God more than the ideal, not by an idea, but by him whom ideality cannot grasp, namely, by that absolute personality we call God.” In other words, according to Buber, to love God we must make him into a person, an “absolute personality,” one who reciprocates, relates to us, loves us back. One can love God if one relates to him as a person (which is why the liturgy does exactly that, albeit in clucky and outdated ways).

But what of the State of Israel? Is she a person? Can she return love? Perhaps. After all, I can understand, if not always agree with, the patriotic pull of one’s own country. A country protects its citizens, feeds them, and provides for them. The relationship between a citizen and her country is one of reciprocity. So I suppose I can understand loving one’s country, the country where one invests one’s life. But, if this is what we mean by “loving a country,” I am still baffled by the passionate professions of United States Jews to love Israel.

I myself am a citizen of both the United States and Israel. I served in the IDF, and two of my children live in Israel. I obviously have a big stake in Israel as a country–but I have chosen to live elsewhere. And I think this is significant. One’s country in practice is where one is a citizen, where one lives, lays down roots, where one invests one’s life and future.I just don’t know what “loving Israel” from the Diaspora means.

If Diaspora Jews love Israel, does Israel love them? Israel as a country has no obligations to U.S. Jews other than offering them automatic citizenship if they choose to immigrate. And that’s how it should be (if, indeed, you support the Law of Return). I found it significant that at the Jstreet conference almost all of those who proudly professed their undying “love of Israel” were not Israeli (and there were many Israelis present) but American, Jews who choose to live elsewhere. I did not hear one Israeli speaker profess “loving” Israel as part of their presentation. It’s not that they didn’t love Israel, in the way U.S. Jews doubtless love the United States, it was just beside the point.

Here I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s response to Gershom Scholem’s critique of her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Scholem was very upset about Arendt’s critical analysis of the Eichmann trial, something that was so emotionally charged for the entire Jewish people. He accused her of lacking Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel). In this context, Scholem was not referring to the Jewish state but to the Jewish people, yet Arendt’s answer covers both. In a letter to Scholem dated July 24, 1963, Arendt responded as follows: “You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons. I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed only ‘love’ my friends and the only kind of love I know and believe in is the love of persons.”

I suppose I can understand why so many at the conference were so lavish about professing their love of Israel. They wanted to fend off criticism that they didn’t “love” Israel, that they were not “pro-Israel.” But being pro-Israel doesn’t require loving Israel. I can support something I don’t love. I can support it because I believe it has a right to exist. Being pro-Palestine doesn’t mean I “love” Palestine or Palestinians. It means I believe a Palestinian state has a right to exist.

My aim is not to rebuke the Jstreeters. To the contrary, I raise the issue because the conference was refreshingly open to critique, willing to explore categories, committed to investigating itself, even at the risk of alienating some of its more conservative members and giving fodder to its enemies. All this is why the uninvestigated mantra “I love Israel” was so troubling.

A vignette: in a discussion session defining what it means to be pro-Israel, one woman courageously stood and said, “I don’t love Israel.” It was like a wave rushed over the room. Silence. No one seemed to know what she meant. Sitting there, I felt she held up a mirror to everyone in the room – everyone at the conference - as if to say, “You say you love Israel. Do you know what you mean?” Silence.

Do I love Israel? I don’t know, but I do know that I cannot truly answer that question until I explore exactly what that means. J-Street should be a forum for that.

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