Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Baltimore, where more than 3,000 Jews from around North America gathered to discuss the current state of Judaism.
The loose theme of the event was Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world,” which is one of the most important tenets of Judaism. For us, Tikkun Olam means leaving the world a better place than you found it.
In one of the opening sessions, I heard amazing speakers talk about inspiring work being done by the Jewish community in places such as Rwanda and Haiti. I heard about how my community mobilized during Hurricane Sandy relief. These acts are commendable and should be praised — but that wasn’t why I went to Baltimore.
I went to Baltimore hoping to discuss how my Jewish and Israeli identities are struggling with one another. I went to Baltimore to figure out how the conflict fits into my Jewish values.
I went to talk about Palestinians.
As a Jew, I feel a strong connection to the state of Israel. As a liberal and someone who believes in undeniable, universal equality, I feel a strong moral imperative to fight for human rights for everyone, regardless of which side of a border they live on. Increasingly, I feel that my liberal, Jewish and democratic beliefs are at odds with the actions of the state of Israel. Israel occupies Palestinian land, and with violence on both sides, a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears distant.
My desire to process this aspect of my identity began the first time I met a Palestinian. I attended a Jewish day school and was brought up well inside the comforts of a Jewish establishment. I was taught to always defend Israel against its enemies and that all criticism of Israel was veiled anti-Semitism. At age 17, I was introduced to a Palestinian. I was prepared to argue with him, refute all of his points about Israel and explain to him that Israel was only acting to protect itself in all situations.
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was his story. After hearing it, I could no longer view Israel as perfect and Palestinians as evil — I saw both sides fight for the same rights and values. More importantly, I realized that being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine views were not mutually exclusive, but interdependent. I was met with hostility, however, when I expressed my views within my community, to the point that I felt uncomfortable discussing the conflict at all.
To me, at its root, the conflict reflects the struggle for Israel to embody both a Jewish and democratic character. The choice seems to lead either to an Israel that pursues Jewish tribalism and occupation, or an Israel that pursues democratic ideals. When I was in Baltimore, only one session dealt with this tension. One speaker in particular discussed this tension in a way that appealed to me. Rabbi Professor Naftali Rothenberg, a deeply devout Orthodox Jew, spoke about his love for Israel and Judaism. When asked what he would do if his views on Judaism and democracy conflicted with each other, he gave the answer I needed to hear. “It is no question, I would give up a Judaism with no democracy in it. Judaism without democracy is not a Judaism for me.”
I feared questioning and struggling with my identity would be isolating as I arrived on campus at the University, but at Festifall, I found J Street UMich. As the only student organization on campus actively campaigning for a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we’re working to hold our democratic values and Jewish identity together. As the Jews involved in J Street UMich, we have decided that a concern for the future of both Israelis and Palestinians rests at the very center of our work of Tikkun Olam.
This week, while pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students rallied on the Diag, we hand-delivered nearly 300 postcards signed by students calling for American leadership in the region to help create a two-state solution. While divisive actions run rampant on our campus, we seek to be proactive in ensuring safety and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Unfortunately, interesting and nuanced discussion about our identity as it relates to today’s state of Israel were absent at the assembly. It was unacceptable that only one session out of dozens dealt with the actual issues facing Judaism today. Luckily, these discussions aren’t missing on campus — you just need to know where to find them.
Joel Elster is an LSA junior.