Next year in the diaspora

How can American Jews comport their faith with Israel’s politics?

Next year in the diaspora

How can American Jews comport their faith with Israel’s politics?

Next week is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, falling just a month shy of the one-year anniversary of the day when a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the city in which I live, and murdered 11 Jews. (“We should not call it an anniversary,” said our rabbi at Friday-night services. “An anniversary should be a time for joy.”)

I have always loved the high holidays — Rosh Hashanah and some days later, Yom Kippur — even though the synagogue services are always too long, even though the rabbis always repeat themselves in their sermons, even though by the time the sun goes down on the Yom Kippur you want to slump in your seat and bite off your dry tongue.

Before we all go home to break the fast and have a few too many glasses of wine, we say together: L’shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim, next year in Jerusalem. I have always held that this must mean a spiritual Jerusalem — the “heavenly” Jerusalem, as we sometimes say — a state of being and aspiration. But I am, as the years advance, less and less sure what that distinction means, and increasingly worried that I am giving myself the gift of an easy way out.

There were elections in Israel last week, the second round in just six months. The first round, in April, ended indecisively, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — beset by charges of corruption and perhaps public exhaustion after his unprecedented 10-year reign, the longest term for a prime minister in Israeli history — was unable to form a government.

Israeli politics have always been byzantine, and assembling a governing coalition out of the many fractious political parties and alliances has often come down to midnight negotiations and last-minute deal-making, but this failure was unprecedented, a first in Israeli history. The September elections produced more bad news for Netanyahu: the more moderate Kahol Lavan party (usually referred to as “Blue and White”), which had tied his conservative Likud party last time around, appears to have edged them out, and while former Israeli Defense Forces head and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has agreed in principle with calls for a national unity government, he has refused to negotiate directly with his rival and rules out the possibility of serving under “Bibi.”

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have now sat atop Israeli politics and society for so long that it feels almost liberatory simply to imagine an Israel without them. Netanyahu attracts the bulk of foreign press attention, but Sara is equally implicated in the ongoing corruption and bribery scandals. Last month, she tried to barge into the cockpit of a commercial airliner because the pilots hadn’t greeted her over the intercom. She was caught on tape screaming at a gossip columnist over the phone. It has been speculated that she is the power behind the throne, but so monstrously entitled, imperious, and disconnected from reality that even Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, some of the most monstrous, entitled billionaire nutcases that Hashem has ever seen fit to drop as a curse upon the Jewish people consider her entirely and irredeemably nutso.

For American Jews, who are, to Donald Trump’s chagrin, decidedly liberal and overwhelmingly Democratic, Netanyahu’s derisive, truculent, combative tenure — his permanent frown and snidely condescending attitude toward the diaspora — mark everything wrong and irreconcilable about Israel. Perhaps, we allow ourselves to hope, when he is gone, Israel can simply go back.

But go back where? To what? It is a common liberal fantasy, this idea that the past is a better place to which one can return. It is the same fantasy that, for example, still fuels the elderly and confused Joe Biden’s surprisingly tenacious campaign here in America. After Trump, there will be a return to “normalcy.” And Netanyahu is certainly a Trumpian figure, if somewhat more disciplined and self-contained.

Also like Trump, Netanyahu excels at sucking the gullible media into his dumb orbit by making hilariously obscene pronouncements and then using their outrage to claim he’s been wronged and deliberately misunderstood. For example, he once said that Hitler didn’t intend to kill the Jews of Europe until a Palestinian convinced him otherwise. Like Trump, he is a moral convenience for his opposition — they can pretend that he is what is wrong with a society and its politics rather than confront the fact that he is only a symptom and a symbol of the deeper illness.

I am not immune from the temptation. I am reluctantly anti-Zionist. Like many Reform Jews in America, I was raised to have positive, albeit very vague, feelings about the Jewish state. At weekend religious school, we gave money to plant trees in Israel, and we were taught, also vaguely, that Palestine had been a hardscrabble desert, barely populated, until Jews arrived to make it bloom once more. One of my first really visceral political memories was sitting with my mother as a young teenager and watching the first reports of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on TV.

But then in my later teens I drifted away from Judaism, in part because we’d moved to a small Pennsylvania town with a tiny, distant, and mostly elderly community of Jews. I learned about the real foundations of Israel, about the Nakba — the brutal expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and cities in 1948. I learned — as much as one could — about the reality of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, about the discrimination faced by Arab citizens of Israel proper, about Jewish settlers, internal checkpoints, the long sham of two-state negotiations.

So I came to abhor the politics of modern Israel, a violent and increasingly reactionary rightwing country whose occupation and annexations in the West Bank and whose imprisonment of millions of Palestinians in the walled ghetto of Gaza is a transgression that we will never, ever expunge. This is not precisely a controversial position: liberal American Jews, even ardent liberal Zionists, will complain mightily about Netanyahu, about Orthodox Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about the failures of the “two-state solution,” even if they lay the blame for the last of these at the feet of Palestinian intransigence rather than Israeli bad faith.

It is, however, a decidedly minority stance: the idea that the problem is not some indefinable conflict, some ineffable tragedy with human victims but without human actors; rather, that it is a tragedy with a guilty party, that that party is Israel, a powerful, nuclear-armed, America-backed nation that holds all the cards.

But I also have Israeli friends and colleagues, many of them members of Israel’s dying, beleaguered political left, some of whom have fought against this awful status quo at great personal risk. I know at least one person, a fellow writer and novelist, who went to jail rather than serve in the IDF. It is easy to be a radical, here in America, a country that creaks on its foundation of bones, a country that expelled and exterminated a whole continent to make way for slavery, for corn, for railroads, and simply wish Israel away.

I have myself wished for it to become a secular, so-called bi-national state, with full and equal citizenship for all, with restitution made to Palestians for stolen homes and lands, and with a Palestinian right of return. But it is easy not to be radical, here in America, as well, easy to imagine that this was somehow the past, before this singular bad man took over, as if Palestine was just a bunch of hippy kibbutzim — cooperative, communal agrarian communities — on one side, Palestinians on the other, everyone minding their own business right up until the Six-Day(or Arab-Israeli) War of 1967, or the failure of the 1978 Camp David Accords, which were supposed to bring peace despite not including any Palestinains in the “negotiations, or the assassination of Rabin, or Operation Cast Lead, or Likud outmaneuvering Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party to take durable power in 2009.

I’ve often said that as a matter of both actual and spiritual survival, it will be necessary for Jews of the diaspora, especially in America, to grow a meaningful Judaism that does not refract through the lens of Israel, but our country doesn’t make that easy. Christian America fetishizes Israel as both an outpost of so-called “Judeo-Christian” — that weird neologism — values, and as a necessary component in their bloody, scifi End Times; political America fetishes Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” — not to mention a useful, if occasionally bumptious and disagreeable, errand boy in the region. And there is no escaping the simple historical fact: there is a Jewish state in the world that will not stop behaving badly, not even if prosecutors finally haul a muttering Netanyahu and his wife off to jail.

Jacob Bacharach is a contributing writer at The Outline.