וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר׃ וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּנִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל׃ (בראשית לב:כה-כט)
“Jacob was left alone. And a figure wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:25-29)
“I just want you to know that America has been very good to you,” a prominent Reform rabbi and member of my extended family said to me.
It was 2003 and I had just announced to my whole family at Thanksgiving dinner that in two weeks’ time I would be leaving and going to Israel on Aliyah. The thoughtful octogenarian rabbi took me aside and shared with me that he wasn’t angry or disappointed but that at the least I should appreciate my life in America and for giving me many opportunities, including the freedom to be Jewish. I didn’t disagree but shared with him my perspective – that I was not moving to Israel as a refugee, nor was I fleeing persecution or adversity. Rather, I was going on Aliyah, ascending to something greater. I was fulfilling an aspiration to be part of a Jewish society and join in the creation of the most exciting and important project in Jewish history. While acknowledging and appreciating the freedom to be Jewish and practice religion openly and freely here in the United States, I also maintain that America gave us the freedom to not be Jewish. Here, we have the freedom to shed the throes of Jewish life and fully assimilate into American culture, even despite strong currents of antisemitism and a widespread experience of refusal to accept Jews into mainstream American life.
Two weeks later, 19 years ago today, I boarded a one-way El Al flight to Israel joining my fate with the fate of the Jewish people and becoming a member of the only Jewish State in the world. Becoming an Israeli citizen was not only about fulfilling a lifelong personal dream, but also a drastic shift in mindset and consciousness. I was now living on Jewish time and in Jewish space. Of course, there is a significant portion of Israelis who are not Jewish, but the story of modern Israel is the creation of a Jewish society with a Jewish public culture.
Since the election and the formation of Israel’s soon-to-be governing coalition – which will include a re-energized ultra-Orthodox contingency and an empowered group of radical ultranationalists, racists, anti-liberal Jews, anti-LGBTQ+, in positions of significant power – I have been asked a recurring question from American Jews:
At what point will we simply cut off from and wash our hands of Israel?
At what point will things have gotten so bad and so antithetical to our values that we, as liberal and progressive North American Jews simply disengage and cut off our ties to Israel?
I was asked these questions three times in the past week on webinars, conferences, and seminars, and came away feeling deeply unsettled. My feeling was that these questions were about more than just the frightening scenarios and threatening policies promoted by new ministers Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and Deputy Minister Avi Maoz – all green-lighted by Prime Minister to be Benjamin Netanyahu. Advertisement
This was about something deeper.
This was about a deep sense of rejection and a feeling of anger, spite, and resentment. Resentment and anger that only comes from being rejected by family and loved ones aA feeling that embodies the sentiment that Israelis ask of us, no, demand of us, to love Israel unconditionally – even if that love is not reciprocated.
As these questions came up in webinars, conferences, and seminars this week, Abe Foxman, one of the great leaders of the American Jewish establishment and former Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League, who for his entire career supported and defended Israel, working in close confidence with Israeli Prime Ministers and leaders said the following:
“I never thought that I would reach that point where I would say that my support of Israel is conditional,” Foxman said in an interview published last Friday by The Jerusalem Post. “I’ve always said that [my support of Israel] is unconditional, but it’s conditional. I don’t think that it’s a horrific condition to say: ‘I love Israel and I want to love Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that respects pluralism.’ If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” he said. Advertisement
But that kind of conditionality comes from a place of privilege.
Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishna reminds us in an oft quoted passage:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶּן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. (משנה אבות ב טז)
“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
The emphasis here is that as Jews we simply don’t have the option to desist or abstain from Jewish life despite the freedoms afforded to us by our (relatively) newfound circumstances.
We, as bnai Yisrael – the descendants of Yisrael, have a familial and historical tie to being Yisrael (as do all who have made the choice to join our people). We are afforded the privilege to wrestle with God because we, like Yaakov, aren’t allowed simply to walk away or conditionalize our participation. The American story offered Jews the ability to opt-out and simply say: “I am no longer part of the story of the Jewish people, and I rescind my participation in the fate and destiny of the Jewish people.”
The late A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s greatest contemporary authors, put it the following way:
“For me, Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays, but in the daily reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or worse.”
In a slightly more abrupt and controversial statement to a 2006 AJC panel, Yehoshua contrasted American Jewish identity with Israeli Jewish identity by explaining that American Jewish identity was like a jacket that could be taken on and off, while Israeli Jewish identity was like skin that could not be removed. Being Yisrael today is the choice to see one’s identity as a skin and not a jacket – regardless of where one lives.
The question of conditionality is not unfounded. If Israel does not recognize the Jewishness of non-Orthodox Jews, why should we care about the Jewish state? As Foxman said this week: “This is an existential question for us, just like issues of borders and security are for them.” If the State of Israel takes measures to reject a significant portion of the population of the Jewish people, that creates an existential crisis for the Jewish people.
The 20th-century philosopher Simon Rawidovicz in his major work “Between Babylon and Jerusalem” asked the question:
“What is the task of the People of Israel during the coming centuries? Of necessity, it will on the one hand be to build its Land and, on the other, live a life of creativity and construction in the lands of its Diaspora. In place of the absolute abstract doctrine of accepted Zionism – and at times, this absolute is only absolute in appearances, a “pseudo-absolute,” I allude here to the Doctrine of Relativity as a solution to the question of the People of Israel. That question has one solution, which is two, one in relation to building its Land and one in relation to life in the Diaspora, and they both derive from one source. They are cut from the same cloth; the subject of both is the same, the material of both is the same, and the soul of both is one. One side of the face of the People of Israel is turned towards the Land of Israel, and the other is turned towards the Diaspora, but both of them are the face of the People of Israel. Both of them together – and not either face on its own – is the face of all of Israel”
Only those who rule out the possibility of divorcing themselves from the Jewish people have the privilege to argue, critique, and wrestle. It’s a package deal. What makes us Yisrael is not drawing lines in the stand, giving ultimatums, or conditionalizing one’s connection. It is saying: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” It is the commitment to hold on, to fight, wrestle, struggle, and argue with one another and with God until we prevail and are worthy of the name Yisrael. As Anat Hoffman often says, it is easier to wring one’s hands in distress and agitation feeling powerless to change the situation, and much harder to roll up one’s sleeves and prepare for hard work.
So, my fellow American Jews, what’s it going to be? Are we going to remain Yaakov and shy away from confrontation and commitment, or are we going to be Yisrael and strive to make Israel and the Jewish people worthy of our divine name?
 Simon Rawidovicz, “On the Establishment of the Brit ha-ivrim,” Between Babylon and Jerusalem, edited by David N. Myers and Benjamin C. I. Ravid, p.149