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Does Uncle Leonard Have A Say?

January 2, 2009

While Israel’s decision to defend the citizens of its uncontested, sovereign territory was long overdue, the predictable international condemnation of Operation Cast Lead was virtually immediate.

Israel ought to ignore most of it, for despite protestations to the contrary, it comes from people who would just as soon see the Jewish State eroded to the point of indefensibility.

But what about those, particularly Jews, who level criticism yet clearly do not wish to see Israel destroyed? So far, most Jews abroad have been supportive. But as Palestinian civilian casualties mount or Israel makes concessions when the conflict abates, Diaspora Jews – and primarily American Jews – are likely to voice opposition, both from the Left and from the rRght. Which leads to that oft-discussed and never-settled question – how much should Israel care what Jews abroad think about this conflict, or any other issue?

For decades, we have invoked a “citizenship” response. “You pay taxes, you send your kids to the army – you get a say.” If you don’t, the argument goes, you don’t count. After all, an American who loves the French language, adores French opera and regularly visits France merits no say in French policy. Shouldn’t the same be true of Diaspora Jews and Israel?

Even Israel itself has never truly believed that it should. The Law of Return, which grants Diaspora Jews automatic rights to Israeli citizenship, essentially recognizes them as, if not citizens, then potential citizens. When successive Israeli prime ministers visiting the United States have either asked for money or urged aliya, they too have implicitly acknowledged that something beyond citizenship is at play. But what is that something?

WITH THE Gaza War, negotiations with Syria and a new Israeli government all likely to elicit an array of opinions from Diaspora Jews, perhaps now is the time to explore an alternate paradigm – abandoning the “citizenship” model and embracing the analogy of an “extended family.”

Imagine a young woman about to make an important life decision – marriage, divorce, career choice or treating a serious illness. It is only natural that her parents and siblings will offer advice. She can heed it or ignore it, but few would question the legitimacy of her nuclear family offering input and hoping to be heard.

But what about an uncle? Now, the right to air an opinion and have it considered stems not from the family tree, but from the sort of relationship the uncle has nurtured over the years. An uncle who wishes to be taken seriously cannot make do with appearing at the occasional Bat Mitzvah or wedding, or at annual holiday celebrations. The sorts of extended family members who get listened to carefully are the ones whose relationship is ongoing, and not only in moments of crisis.

That uncle, to extend our analogy, also has to know the young woman in question. He has to know what she fears and what she loves. He must have an appreciation for her aspirations, her hurts, her dreams. Without that, he’s little more than an Ann Landers who happens to have a spot on the family’s org chart.

And the same is true with Israel and even the best-intentioned American Jews. The King David Hotel is not the Israel that Israelis live. And Masada or the Old City are to Israel as Disneyland is to America. Critically important emblems, they are not the substance of the real people who make up our society.

The hearts and souls of today’s Israelis are to be heard and learned in Israel’s contemporary literature, its most insightful (and often painful) movies and in the inside pages of the sophisticated Hebrew press. All of the above are accessible even to non-Hebrew speakers to varying degrees, but it takes effort. Those who suffice with the King David and Masada (or worse, know even less and have never been here) can’t possibly have anything to say that is worth hearing.

HOW CAN one judge Israel’s reactions in Gaza without having heard the parents in Sderot whose children have been sleeping in the parents’ room for years, or having spoken with teachers about children who at the age of eight or nine are still wetting their beds night after night? Dare people who have not sat with Israeli parents wringing their hands, waiting for a son to call after an endless night, really urge dangerous military action from the comfort and security of their media rooms in suburban America?

It’s time to be honest – there is a profound difference between relationship and pontification. And in real relationships, advice is offered without love being contingent on that advice being taken.

Our all-too-common scenario, in which the Left urges conciliation but has nothing decent to say about this country if war ensues, is a recipe for two sides drifting ever further apart. The same is true of the Right when it does not get its way.

Finally, in genuine relationships, advice is sought, not only offered. And in those relationships, advice and guidance are mutual, not unidirectional. Imagine a Jewish world where Israelis knew that the Diaspora’s support was unconditional. Could America’s Jews learn enough to understand the complexities and nuances of Israeli life? What would it take for American Jewry to become a partner from whom Israel would actually seek advice, and not only support?

Imagine Israel also offering advice, with the understanding that Israelis too must come to appreciate the complexities and dangers of Diaspora life and pledge their support even when their advice is rejected.

For now, most of the Jewish world has united in the face of the Gaza War (J Street being an obvious exception). But make no mistake – even an Israeli victory cannot fix this relationship. We have to decide. Are we going to cultivate relationships in which dissenting voices are genuinely welcomed and considered, or will we allow our communities to continue to drift ever further apart? If there’s an Israeli war in 2058, will anyone outside our borders even care?

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