What it means to love Israel: Let’s start with America

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Andrew Rehfeld

The decisions of the Israeli government this week have been difficult for many Jews in the Diaspora to understand. In times like this it is important to recognize why we continue to support Israel even when we may not agree with its laws, policies or leadership. 

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis supports Israel out of a deep commitment to, and some would call it love for, the Jewish people. With politics and discourse being so toxic today, a statement like “I love Israel” can invoke xenophobic images and blind patriotism. That is a real shame. I believe we have lost something valuable about our relationship with Israel that the phrase “I love Israel” has become so politicized. Let me try to explain by reference to America. 

My love of America is an expression of my feelings about the values upon which it stands, based on the principles and moral commitments upon which it was founded, and the ideals that made the nation what it is and what it is striving to be. In my understanding this means a commitment to the ideals of individualism (what Tocqueville described as “self-interest properly understood”) freedom, and a certain minimalist view of justice. It means respecting the rule of law and supporting the rights articulated in the U.S. Constitution that protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, especially when expressed through the power of the state. 

 But loving America does not mean loving the political leadership that happens to be elected from time to time. Loving America does not require loving the laws that its lawmakers make, or the policy that its leadership pursues. Loving America does not require that we love President George Bush or President Barack Obama, nor does it require that we endorse Obamacare or Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. 


And when people equate any of these things with love of the nation itself, our advocacy can become xenophobic and dangerous. 

This isn’t controversial. The distinction between loving the values upon which a nation is founded and loving the government or the policies that the people enact is an essential distinction for establishing civil discourse. When those who love America disagree vehemently about policy, politics and leadership, their disagreements must be understood as disagreements about which person, policy or law best achieves the core values of America that we do love. For it is these values that we support when we declare an affinity with the nation. 

And what about Israel? 

When American Jews turn to Israel, there is a disconnect. The phrase “I love Israel” sadly now implies an endorsement of a particular politician or policy. And that is a huge loss. A loss that may explain part of why a new generation finds itself alienated from the Jewish State. 

If we have any hope of finding common ground we must reject the view that loving Israel requires the support of any particular politician, policy or law. Love of Israel does not require that we love Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu or Member of Knesset Isaac Herzog (the leader of the main opposition party). Love of Israel does not require us to support Israel’s policies in the West Bank or its extensive social welfare system. When those who love Israel disagree about these things, their disagreements must be understood as disagreements about which person, policy or law best achieves the core values of Israel. For it is these values that we support when we declare our love and solidarity with Israel. 

So why do we have such a hard time maintaining the distinction between loving Israel’s core values and loving its leadership, policy and laws? 

The challenge, I believe, is that many American Jews just don’t have a clear story about what it means to love Israel based on its core values. They have been taught that disagreement will not be tolerated and some mainstream Jewish organizations go so far as to restrict debate by groups that take positions with which they disagree. Again, we don’t make that mistake in America: We know the values upon which it stands. But for us to foster a culture in which we can unabashedly “love” Israel, and unabashedly be committed to Israel, we need to explain first what fundamental values Israel embodies, what fundamental principles ground the existence of the state, and reinforce them even as we disagree about how those values should be pursued. 

Just like we do in America. 

So let me reflect on this personally. For me, the reason I love Israel, the reason that I stand committed to its existence, is in order to pursue what I see as its three core values. 

First, I am committed to Israel because I believe that a Jewish state is necessary for the security and safety of the Jewish people. A Jewish state can stand up to governments that persecute Jews and their communities. One can only wonder what would have happened had Israel been a vital Jewish nation before 1930. But we  know what happened to the Jews in Arab nations whose governments forcibly removed them, evicted them from the lands they were on after 1948: they had a refuge because there was a Jewish State. 

A Jewish state may also protect Jews better from popular anti-Semitism even when a government might otherwise try to keep its Jewish population secure. While we are aware through history of barons and landowners who could not protect “their Jews” from the harm of the masses, the existence of popular anti-Semitism is not buried in the past. Having a Jewish State provides some protection of life and culture as it directs the resources of government to provide the protection otherwise unavailable. 

The second reason I am committed to Israel is that it is essential for the flourishing of the Jewish culture in all of its diversity, from secular humanism to religious orthodoxy. Securing a vibrant Jewish culture that celebrates Shabbat (whether around the table, in shul or on the beach in Tel Aviv), that speaks a common and distinct language, that creates its own art forms, that builds educational institutions dedicated to the study of its literature (religious and otherwise), and that rejoices in the ebbs and flows of a shared calendar has created some of the most creative and innovative developments in Jewish life in two millennia. While some of this flourishing can happen in densely populated religious communities in the Diaspora, the ability to share a truly pluralistic culture that extends into the secular world, is simply more difficult and perhaps even no longer possible in the modern world. 

Finally to commit to Israel, to love Israel is to embrace the aspirations towards universal human rights and justice so that Israel may be a light unto the nations. Just as our American values are rooted in the principles by which the American nation and its founders established, these principles in Israel may be found best articulated in its own Declaration of Independence that to this day forms part of its “basic law.” I can do no better than to quote from the text: 

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” 

The founders of the state that I am committed to supporting, the state that I am proud to say I love, the state to which I would happily attest to being a Zionist for, is a state that aspires to all three of these principles: 

• the security of the Jewish people;

• the flourishing of Jewish culture;

• the promotion of principles of universal justice and human rights. 

Does Israel today live up to these three principles? No it does not, nor has it ever. As principles, as ideals, they are aspirational, things we aspire to achieve. Sometimes it gets closer than at other times. But wouldn’t we say the same thing about America? I would readily admit that both America and Israel are going through some tough, even dangerous times right now relative to their aspirations. But I will certainly not back down or run from my commitments to either simply because they are not realized. 

Indeed, it is precisely when a nation veers far from its own ideals that true patriots rise to help it get itself back on course. 

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis supports programs that speak to all three of these values.  As I transverse the country over the next two weeks please join me on my blog on JFedSTL.org and on Facebook. I invite you to follow along.  I promise I won’t avoid the difficult questions. But I also promise I won’t avoid celebrating what is truly remarkable about this place.