All too often, Jews argue about the way Israel is portrayed in the news media.
Unfortunately, this controversy often obscures a more crucial issue facing Israel: how the country is represented among Jews. Day schools, camps, youth groups, and travel programs have built up Israel into a mythical place, one with a perfect set of attributes and no failings. Each group has its own ideologies. Secularists describe Jews as liberated from religion living Jewishly, kibbutzniks toiling away in the fields to build a new, modern country for the Jewish people, and young Israeli soldiers heroically defending their homeland. Those with religious leanings portray Israel as Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land, focusing on the historical background of the country and the various connections of particular locations to the Biblical narrative. Its innumerable yeshivot of every style cater to the always-been religious, the newly-religious, and the not-yet-religious, offering a chance to strengthen one’s Torah knowledge and commitment to Judaism while imbibing the holiness present in the land.
Month-long teen trips during the summer, birthright israel, and Bar/Bat Mitzvah tours all feed into and reinforce these stereotypes of Israel. The participants view Israel in prepackaged form, planting trees on a Jerusalem hilltop, cramming tiny handwritten notes into the Western Wall, and partying in a Tel Aviv disco rented out especially for their tours—with only a fleeting glimpse of the real Israel through a tour bus window. Each trip may differ slightly in its format or purpose, but nearly all portray the Israel that Diaspora Jews expect to see: the epicenter of Judaism and the Jewish people, a place to be born again religiously, the fount of the Zionist ideal, a source of hot Israeli soldiers who are infinitely more attractive than their Diaspora college student counterparts—and, of course, the antidote to intermarriage and assimilation. The perfect country.
And it remains that way—that is, until the bubble bursts.
For each person, it is a different moment that sparks this disillusionment. It might be the realization that Israel has a large secular population which cares nothing for religious observance; it could be the dismay at the size or influence of particular religious segments of the country; or, it is the poverty, injustice to foreign workers, ongoing terrorism, political messes and bureaucracies, anger at disengagement, or the inevitable municipal strike which leaves piles of garbage strewn upon the picturesque streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Ariel Daube, currently a student at Ben Gurion University Medical School for International Health, recalled that as a student in Jewish day schools and on family trips to Israel, he saw a very narrow view of the country. “Growing up, I was only exposed to the Anglo community, to the middle class. It was only when I came here independently that I was able to look at things on my own. As a volunteer with Magen David Adom, I met Israelis who were frustrated with religious coercion and Arab ambulance drivers who were frustrated with prejudice.”
Similarly, Navit Robkin, a Dorot Fellow currently working with Darfuri refugees in Israel, related that “Jewish day schools have almost done a disservice by deifying Israel and making it holy.”
Sooner or later, visitors conclude that Israel isn’t perfect and that it has problems just like any other country. Of course, this shouldn’t be anything new; people’s expectations of other countries are routinely disappointed. However, since Israel is deified as larger than life by run-of-the-mill mythology disseminated by everyone from youth groups to the tourism industry, recognizing that Israel is just like any other country in so many ways crushes peoples’ expectations—and drives them away from the State.
A solid relationship cannot be built upon myths and exaggerations, and if we intend to ensure a healthy relationship between Diaspora Jews and the Jewish State, we’re going to need to inject a lot more realism into our relationship. Israelis have day-to-day concerns about their children, their mortgages, the state of the economy, their health, and the latest political brouhaha. Israel cannot be expected to support and alleviate all of the problems in the Diaspora while simultaneously living up to unrealistic ideals.
Additionally, Israel cannot be expected to be a perfect haven for those wishing to move there.
For Diaspora Jews, the biggest ideal of all has been aliyah, or immigration to Israel, regarded as the ultimate commitment to the State. However, Diaspora Jews should not be made to feel less Jewish for not immediately packing up and moving to Israel. It’s one thing to plan a week- or month-long visit on starry-eyed views; it’s another thing entirely to uproot oneself and move to a new culture and new country that has its fair share of problems. Moreover, the idealized view can have the opposite effect than intended. In Daube’s experience, “people who have come intending to make aliyah didn’t have realistic expectations, and when they were exposed to Israeli culture in its rawest form, they were shocked back to their home countries. There are many people like that.”
Robkin concurs. Pushing aliyah by selling Israel as an ideal place “causes aliyah disillusionment,” she says. Her friends, whose upbringing has led them to see the country only through a religious lens, “don’t grasp Israel as a living, breathing country, and don’t see it outside of a religious purpose.”
To prevent the negative effects of this disenchantment, Israel should be made more “real” to Jews around the world. To do so, there needs to be real engagement between Israelis and Diaspora Jews on an individual level. Although there are plenty of long-term trips and programs which seek to achieve this goal, all too many participants fail to step outside the university or the Anglo bubble and connect with Israelis. As such, there should be more emphasis on actual immersion in Israeli culture and an increased effort to integrate foreign participants into Israeli life, whether through housing, classes, volunteer work, or social events.
Because not everyone can do a long-term program, shorter programs should also seriously focus on making Israel real. Tours can involve volunteering in development towns and home hospitality with Israeli families; teen trips can be reoriented to include Israeli peers for a portion of the tour. By mixing Israelis and Diaspora Jews, not only will Diaspora Jews see Israel through the eyes of Israelis, but Israelis will also see their country through the eyes of Diaspora Jews. By seeing the country from a different perspective, each group connects with it that much more strongly.
Outside of Israel, our educators and leaders should represent Israel as it really is, not as a perfect country, but as our homeland, which is unique and special in many ways. Israel has never been flawless, not during the times of the Temple, and not more recently during the building of the kibbutzim or the establishment of the State. Israel is not a magical cure for various Jewish ailments, be they assimilation, religious apathy, or anti-Semitism. The images we draw while touring Israel or learning about it from afar must be augmented with realism.
Israel is our homeland despite its flaws, or perhaps even because of them. It is a place we are to love and support, even as we disapprove of some of its qualities. Rather than build it up into a mythical land of our dreams that exists only in our imaginations, only to disappoint when it doesn’t live up to expectations, we must instead connect with our Israeli brethren and see them as people like us, and help improve our country so it becomes a better and more successful place for its citizens and for the Jewish people around the world.
“Utopias are called utopias for a reason—because they don’t exist,” Daube explained. “To be a true Zionist, you have to realistically understand the good and the bad of Israel. It’ll only get better if you recognize the bad and try to make it good, and I have a responsibility to be part of this experiment and make what is bad, good.”