I love America; I love Israel

Because of a serious medical challenge, I recently decided to resign my position from the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors. I was honored to serve on this board, even if my tenure was cut short. If I had remained on the board, I would have been in Israel at the end of June, ironically coinciding with two very disappointing actions of the Israeli Cabinet. To be sure, I found these actions, highly political in nature, to be offensive to Diaspora Jewry, and it made me think about what I mean when I state that I love Israel.

The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley supports Israel out of a deep commitment to – and some would call it love for – the Jewish people. With politics and discourse being so toxic today, a statement like “I love Israel” can invoke xenophobic images and blind patriotism. That is a real shame.

To a certain extent, the same is true for my love for America. It is an expression of my feelings about the values upon which it stands, based on the principles and moral commitments upon which it was founded and the ideals that made the nation what it is and what, I still believe, it is striving to be.

When I declare that I love America, here is also what I do not mean. Loving America does not mean loving the political leadership that happens to be elected from time to time. Loving America does not require loving the laws that its lawmakers make, or the policies that its leadership pursues. Loving America does not require that we love President Bush or President Obama, nor does it require that we endorse Obamacare or Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of my colleagues noted that expressing love for America as being inextricably tied to specific government policies can become dangerous. The distinction between loving the values upon which a nation is founded and loving the government, or the policies that the people enact, is an essential distinction for establishing civil discourse. When those who love America disagree vehemently about policy, politics and leadership, their disagreements must be understood as disagreements about which person, policy or law best achieves the core values of America that we do love.

And what about Israel?

When American Jews turn to Israel, there is a growing disconnect. The phrase “I love Israel” more often than not, is becoming tied to an endorsement of a particular politician or policy. That is a big loss. A huge loss. A loss that may explain part of why a growing number of American Jews find themselves alienated from the Jewish state.

If we have any hope of finding common ground, we must reject the view that loving Israel requires the support of any particular politician, policy or law. Love of Israel does not require that we love Prime Minister Netanyahu or Yair Lapid, an outspoken opposition party leader. Love of Israel does not require us to support Israel’s policies in the West Bank or the extensive social welfare system that still exists. When those who love Israel disagree about these things, their disagreements must be understood as disagreements about which person, policy or law best achieves the core values of Israel. For it is these values that we support when we declare our love and solidarity with Israel.

The recent actions of the Israeli Cabinet certainly may challenge the love and support for Israel among many Diaspora Jews. But I join Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president and CEO of the Union for Reform Judaism, who stated emphatically that the recent developments on the egalitarian Kotel prayer space and the conversion bill “were not going to sever the bonds between the Jewish people.” That would only embolden those Ultra-Orthodox in Israel who are using their political clout to drive a wedge between Israel and liberal Jews worldwide, and strengthen their hegemonic position over a growing segment of Israeli society, even if not supported by a majority of the Israeli population. Understanding how the government in Israel falls or stands is to understand that these issues, while felt deeply by Diaspora Jews, are but a convenient political pawn among coalition partners.

Jacobs said his “love affair with this place [Israel] is about the people and the country; [his] argument is with the government.  [He’s] not falling out of love.”

Neither am I.

Now is not the time to distance ourselves, or our Jewish community, from Israel. On the contrary. The times and the issues call upon us to strengthen and expand our relationship with and love for Israel