Our Pledge To You


Israel forgets: being Jewish means more than not running buses on the Sabbath


Like the United States, Israel is a country torn between inclusive liberal democracy and rigid religious theocracy. A participant in the 2018 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade blows the shofer. | GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Now that’s the Israel I know and love.

I’ve gotten in the habit of pretty much ignoring what goes on in the Promised Land. Everything there is a problem (Promised to whom?) particularly as its government continues the rightward slide toward nationalism so poisoning our own country.

While America, under the leadership of Donald Trump, is trying to be great again by harassing refugees and flipping the bird to immigrants, Israel joins the fun by reminding its non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state, officially by a new “Nation-State” law, that they don’t belong, don’t run things and never will.

Is that helpful? To insecure nationalists, sure. To those trying to nudge Israel toward a viable future in the 21st century, not so much.

A full-time job, opposing that slide in our own country. To keep our own religious fanatics from trying to turn the supposedly neutral government into an auxiliary of their church, in league with the least religious, least moral president since … well, ever.

Given that, why bother with Israel? Because by seeing how Israelis combat their problems gives us a hint how to cope with our own.

So — talk about burying the lede — what’s the good news out of Israel that has me smiling?

A thousand Israelis took part in a mass Arabic lesson at Habima Square in Tel Aviv Monday night, to protest to the new Nation-State Law which, among other ominous rumblings, downgraded the status of the Arabic language because, well, nationalists like to stick their thumb in the eyes of those they consider beneath them. It’s makes them feel better about themselves, which is what nationalism is all about: dressing up in the shiny uniform of your own people, strutting about and pretending to be magnificent.

You fight that … how? In part, by embracing the thing that nationalists would see denigrated. Just as in Denmark last week, Danes offended by that nation’s new anti-niqab law have been protesting by covering their own faces. Or just by not being silent. Imagine if American liberals celebrated our country’s diversity with half the volume that Republicans denounce it? Imagine the roar.

Sitting at my kitchen table, reading the news, I had an epiphany. As much as I am without question Jewish, and am proud of that, my central identity has nothing to do with the God of Deuteronomy or my mom being Jewish or studying Talmud or an affinity for gefilte fish, or whatever particular marker of Judaism you care to name.

What I like about Judaism is, first, the thinking part. The clear-minded, rational understanding of what’s going on. Plus the compassion part, a feeling for others that I fancy is intrinsic to the faith, and not just the usual insincere chin-music.

And second, is the doing part. Not leaving it all in God’s hands, or hoping that justice is waiting in Heaven. But tikkun olam, repairing the world, right now, starting with whatever part of it happens to be right in front of you. So if your country tries to undermine the very language your neighbor speaks, then you need to go somewhere public and learn it.

Nationalists view multi-culturism as dangerous and naive, and in 1300, maybe it was. The world as a zero sum gain; if one group wins the other must lose.

But if we look at actual history, the human beings who somehow manage to cooperate and overcome their outward differences get to raise cities and develop agriculture. Those who realize that science has no nationality get to cure polio. While those who file their teeth to points and fight everyone who isn’t like them eventually die out. Nationalists miss this; they see only the high they get from regarding themselves, but are blind to the cost. Our modern world has many benefits — running water, commerce, this computer stuff. But it scares some folks, and they want to go back to the womb.

Don’t let them try. Push back. We’ve got a good thing, with this modern world. Let’s not wreck it. Nationalism is like any other drug that makes you feel really good until it suddenly doesn’t. Germany soared, for a while, until it didn’t. The sticky end always comes. A strong Jewish identity created Israel and brought it great success. But the world is changing, and a new strategy is needed.