Israel

For Israelis, “Israel” is, of course, a rich, varied category of experience. Seen from within, however, it is always in some sense the purer ideal of Israel, edited and often brutally reduced and diluted by “Israel” as a living experience. Even for tourists, the ideal Israel must often be protected from the corrosive effects of their experiences in Israel. In the Israeli experience, the high narrative of Israel is subject to constant challenges by the pains and necessities of everyday life. For American Jews who are involved with Israel, “Israel” is a more simplistic and often (not always) inspiring symbol of the high narrative of Jews as a collective. For American Jewish leaders especially, “Israel” in the non-Israeli sense of the term is an evocative symbol, a resource for instilling ethnic and religious Jewish identities and commitments in American Jews. Hence, Israel has become the site of Jewish American rituals of commitment and identification. In order to protect the power of “Israel” as a symbolic resource upholding and reinforcing Jewish continuity in America, American Jewish leaders use rhetoric and design programs that tend to select out key aspects of Israel as a living experience, or Israel as a narrative of ordinary Jews seeking stability and welfare. The systematic misunderstandings manifest in the Jewish American and Israeli use of the term “Israel” have been revealed in recent years in the discussions of the “peace process” and “Jerusalem.” Both Labor and Likud mayors of Jerusalem have shown acute awareness of the differences between “Jerusalem” as a symbol for Jewish solidarity for Jews around the world and “Jerusalem” as a complex, contradictory reality that does not lend itself to simple slogans. Israeli leaders who are aware of these discrepancies between the meanings of the terms “Jerusalem” and “Israel” within and outside Israel often deliberately allow “Israel” and “Jerusalem” – the symbols, the resource of Jewish emotional solidarity – to eclipse “Israel” and “Jerusalem,” the living experience.

Seen from this perspective, what Israel does or how it does it is, among other things, always judged by American Jewish leaders in terms of whether it weakens or reinforces “Israel” as a resource for cementing Jews in America. Thus, for example, escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which often upgraded “Israel” as a focus of Jewish solidarity and peoplehood, has commonly devalued Israel as a positive category of experience for insiders. The “peace process” has often had the opposite effect and has, therefore, been a characteristic site of systematic misunderstandings between parts of American Jewry (especially religious and nationalistic Jews) and parts of Israel. For many Israelis, it has suggested the hope and possibility of upgrading Israel as a living experience, even at the cost of Israel’s power as an agent of a redemptive Jewish history. For many American Jews, the “peace process” has suggested the danger of downgrading Israel as a symbolic resource of Jewish solidarity and commitment.