“Ask Me Why:” Is Israel Necessary for Jewish Security?

Since November 2010, Chicago Public Radio and the Illinois Humanities Council has been producing a series of interviews called “Ask Me Why.”  Inspired by StoryCorps: National Day of Listening, the project features pairs of individuals who disagree on an issue, taking turns asking each other questions in order to better understand each other and their position.

Here’s the IHC’s description of the program from their website:

We found pairs of people who know each other but who disagree on an issue and asked if we could record their conversation on the issue – but with a bit of a twist. We told our pairs they couldn’t debate, argue or challenge a point. They could only take turns asking each other questions, and listening to the answers. The goal would be, not to make a point or counterpoint, but to better understand why the other person thinks the way they do. What personal experiences shaped their opinion on this issue? Did they always have this opinion and if not, what changed their mind on the issue? Where do they get information that guides their opinion on the issue?

Perhaps you too have grown weary of the shouting matches, rancor and recriminations that characterize much of the public debate on contemporary issues. While we aren’t claiming to single-handedly remedy that, we’re hoping that Ask Me Why can serve as a reminder that thoughtful deliberation and disagreement involves not just making your point, but listening to and understanding those with whom you disagree.

The latest “Ask Me Why” interview” features a conversation between me and Boris Furman, a longtime friend and a congregant at JRC. Boris and I agreed to take on the rather charged question: is a Jewish state essential to the future security and well being of the Jewish people?

The final five minute program is only a tiny fraction of our hour-long conversation. Although our actual interview was quite wide-ranging, producer Robin Amer really did a nice job of paring the conversation down to its essence. The final version highlights the more personal moments in which we share a bit about our own Jewish identities and what we believe it means to be a Jew in a post-Holocaust world.

Click here to give a listen. It’s obviously only a small taste of a much longer conversation, but I hope at least it might help to provide a model of civil, respectful Jewish discourse on a profoundly painful issue.

18 thoughts on ““Ask Me Why:” Is Israel Necessary for Jewish Security?

  1. It was very nice to be able to hear a civil discussion on Israel. Some would have us believe it is not possible. I look forward to when we can hear more of it.
    Like Boris, I am the child of Holcoaust survivors. I was born in this country, though my older brother was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Germany. When my mother was asked about why she did not want to resettle in Israel, her response was she did not want to move to another war zone. She wanted somewhere safe to live and raise a family.
    Unfortunately, if Israel is the safe haven for the Jews, why do we always hear about the existential threat to the State and the Jews there? I believe both Boris and Brant would agree that what is needed are safe havens and justice for everyone, everywhere – including Madrid (am I being naive?); one of the lessons of the Holocaust we should strive for is Never Again (for anyone, anywhere).
    Then we could also view Israel (and Palestine/territories, however you define that) as a safe haven for all its residents.
    Thanks to all who make these discussions possible.

  2. Like your mother, I was born in 1933 and also saw the newsreels of the camps being opened by the GI’s and witnessed the shock of bodies being piled up in trenches in the snow. Fortunately, I saw this horrendous scene with my own mother in the neighborhood movie theater in the Bronx. We could share the anguish together. Several years later the creation of the state of Israel was greeted by euphoria and pride in our New York neighborhood.

    I agree that our experiences growing up help shape our entire lives, but there are are other influences as well, and I have greatly revised my feelings about a Jewish state with the knowledge now of how it was created and at what cost to other peoples. The continuation of a sealed, defiant, military power-driven state can only weaken true security for Jews in Israel.

    Thank you to you and Boris for your thoughtful conversation.

    B’Shalom, Nina

  3. First of all, I hope all is well Rabbi Rosen. Very interesting discussion. Israel continues to be a complex issue. Many of the young Jews that I have spoken with about the issue appear to be either confused, uninformed, or simply do not care one way or another.

    Although I grew up blanketed by the comfort and freedom America has to offer, I was raised in a home that is unconditionally Zionist. My family believes that Israel is irrevocably tied to Jewish identity, and is equally vital to the future prosperity of the Jewish people. Just as monuments, landmarks, and historic sites create the story, history, and identity of Americans, so too does Israel for Jews.

    When it comes to Israel, there is no denying that many people (regardless of religion, creed, and nationality) have a stake in the land, and continue to express a connection and claim to it. Israeli policies have been scrutinized recently, and with good reason. Some call the treatment of Palestinians an “apartheid,” and there may be cause for that expression. However, I believe that Israel needs to take a firm stance about its position and right to exist. I believe in the Jewish state, and I want Israel to exist, but there needs to be a way in which it executes its autonomy without the degradation and oppression of others.

    Thank you!

  4. Rabbi,
    I was very surprised by your response to the story shared by Mr. Furman about his son’s experience on Yom Kippur in Madrid. After leaving the synagogue the guard told his son it was best to remove his kippah due to it being a bad neighborhood. Mr. Furman has expectations that a Jew should be able to be a Jew anywhere in the world, but your response was to be appreciative of the guard’s kindness of advising the boys to hide their Jewishness in order to be safe. I imagine that Mr. Furman appreciates that at least in Israel a Jew will always be able to wear his kippah in public. And are you suggesting that we should be satisfied with living as the thugs will allow us to live. Would you suggest the same kindness to Muslims in America…hide your faith, don’t build mosques?

    • Israel,

      The point of my comment was not that we should be satisfied with denying who we are. Of course I agree that “a Jew should be able to be a Jew anywhere in the world.”

      I was making a different point entirely; for Boris, this incident underscored the vulnerability of Jews in Madrid. For me, it underscored the fact that Spanish authorities are concerned with the safety of Jews.

      I believe the only true way we will safeguard the security of Jews (or any minority group) in the world today is by creating societies that are legally concerned with their welfare. Sad to say, there will always be “street racism.” In every country in the world, there will inevitably be popular anti-Semitism displayed by citizens. But at the end of the day, it seems to me, the real question is this: does that country enshrine the safety of its minorities or not?

      How will we ultimately keep minorities safe? By building political nation-states for them or by keeping up the fight for democracy, equality and civil rights under the rule of law wherever they may live? This question was the ultimate crux of my conversation with Boris.

  5. Thanks for sharing this subject with us. It’s helpful to hear opposite opinions and have one’s own opinion challenged.

    LMR

  6. I do not think that the doctrine of inevitable persecution of minorities by majorities, even if true, is a valid justification for a Jewish state. If it is true that a minority will inevitably suffer persecution by a majority then, since Jews are human beings like anybody else, a Jewish state, even one composed entirely of Jews, will inevitably persecute Jewish minorities. Members of a Jewish minority group, according to this view, will inevitably be persecuted in Israel for being the wrong kind of Jews and will need to flee Israel for their safety. Where will they be able to flee too?

    • Jews are indeed human beings like anyone else (who knew?), and as evidence of this we have from the very beginning seen signs in Israel of the phenomenon you discuss. It continues in Israel to this day certainly for so-called “Israeli Arabs”, and also for the “wrong kinds of Jews”, although the latter situation has improved somewhat for some flavors of Jews, though not so much for others.

      On the other hand, I can think of historically diverse populations, some in countries I have called home, in which minorities are generally not persecuted, at least at the level of the society, though there might be discrimination at a political level in some cases. Problems are inevitable, though, when you explicitly define a state in ethnic, racial, or religious terms, because in doing so you are automatically creating tiers of citizenship. Serious, very deep-seated, and extremely long-term problems are guaranteed when such a state is established on territory overwhelmingly populated by people who are not members of the group that defines the state.

  7. The survivalist argument for the Jewish State is an old argument from another time. We should move beyond it. It has no meaning. Whether it proves to make us safer or more at risk, doesn’t matter. Israel IS.

    • And Israel will have to change radically if it is to continue to exist in any form. It cannot go on very much longer as it is now.

  8. Brant – thanks for sharing the NPR piece featuring you and Boris.

    Boris recounted the story of his son at a synagogue in Madrid, being warned by the police to take off his yarmulke for his own safety. My take on the story is that we don’t have to look far for sobering reminders that after 3,000 years of persecution and atrocities against Jews, the world hasn’t changed much.

    Brant, your take on the Madrid story was “how wonderful that Madrid has policemen trying to keep Jewish kids safe.”

    I imagine that in the early and mid 1930s in Germany, as a mere dislike of a minority grew into state-sanctioned murder of Jews, that there were well-meaning policeman who “helped” Jews by steering them away from unsafe neighborhoods. Looking back, should Jews’ first reaction have been “how wonderful” it is that the policemen care?

    Help me understand how you interpret a sobering, disturbing encounter with anti-Semitism as a positive experience. It would seem that the only way to do this would be to ignore that this incident ever took place, but I assume you wouldn’t advocate this.

    So, help me understand why you feel Boris’ story is a positive experience.

    Thanks

    Marc Rosenberg

    • Marc:

      Yes, it’s true: my first thought upon hearing this story was not “It’s happening again.” It was, rather, “Thank goodness that this policeman was looking out for Ezra. God forbid that something might have happened to him.” I did not take this as a sign that Jew-hatred was on the rise in Spain or that another Holocaust could or would happen in Europe. I was just happy to hear that he was kept safe.

      This question was indeed the crux of my disagreement with Boris. When he discussed the vulnerability of the Jews in the world and/or the possibility of another Holocaust, he said:

      I feel not that it might happen but that it will happen, it has to happen, it always happens. The question is when and where.

      I respectfully disagree. I don’t believe another Holocaust “has to happen.” And I believe we need to be very careful before we make statements like this.

      Yes, even after the Holocaust, there are places in the world where Jews are not safe publicly identifying themselves as Jews. This is sad, tragic and unacceptable. But should the mere persistence of anti-Semitism mean, as Boris claimed, that another Holocaust “has to happen?”

      All prejudice is ever present, but we need to caution against the assumption that all prejudice can or will lead to something as extreme as genocide. Certainly all anti-Semitism is dangerous to Jews, but historically speaking, it only becomes a threat to our survival when it is legislated. That is to say, the most lethal form of anti-Semitism occurs whenever a state develops and carries out official anti-Semitic policies against its own citizens.

      Admittedly, states would not be able to legislate racism if they did not have popular prejudice upon which to draw their support. In Germany, for instance, Hitler would never have succeeded without the grassroots anti-Semitism of the masses. But the masses alone could never have carried out a genocide such as resulted in the Final Solution. It was only when Hitler created certain political mechanisms in Germany that the Third Reich became a machine that decimated European Jewry.

      We cannot and should not reasonably equate street anti-Semitism with the kind of anti-Semitism the resulted in the Holocaust. That is simply a reaction based on emotion and fear and not the historical facts. Popular anti-Semitism, like all forms of prejudice, will rise and fall for any number of reasons, and we should rightly protest whenever we see it on the increase. But at the same time, I believe we need to take great care that we do not play the “Holocaust card” whenever we hear about these kinds of incidents. The way to prevent future Holocausts is to advocate societies that are based on civil rights, human rights and legal protection against acts of racism against all minorities.

  9. Amen to that Brant.

    The argument of basing a state on civil and political rights for all (regardless of ethnic or religious identity) is critical one. Sir Isaac Isaacs (like Judah Magnes and Martin Buber) in the 1940s favoured a binational [multicultural] state in the mutual historic home of Palestinians and Jews because this would be based on civil and political rights for all not just some. In contrast he saw Political Zionism as “Undemocratic, Unjust, Dangerous”. He saw it as counter to the Balfour Declaration, counter to the British White Papers in 1922 and 1939 and provocative Anti-Semitism. That is by claiming a higher status for Jews in Palestine and forcing a lower status for Palestinians it would provoke neighbouring countries (amongst others) to create policies which were detrimental to Jews. The flight of Jews from Arab countries to Israel 148-1960s was a consequence a variety factors, one which included forcibly creating a Jewish State.

    For those who take offence to the term that Israel was ‘forcibly’ created rather than ‘given’ by the UN you will need to do some research. Something that has had little written about it is the events that occurred in the UN Security Council post UN General Assembly Partition plan. Three months after the Partition Plan was made the UN Security Council debated for a month the possibility and effects of implementing such a plan. By March 1948 the US (despite their intense lobbying efforts prior to the November 47 GA resolution) backflipped and favoured placing Palestine under a UN Trusteeship. This outraged the Jewish Agency, who said regardless of the UN Security’s decision it would create a Jewish State as soon as the British left. In the days and weeks before the British left key places like Deir Yassin (5 weeks prior), Jaffa (2 days prior), Haifa (3 weeks prior) and Jaffa (3 days after) were taken. The typical narrative we are taught in the West is ‘Israel accepted the Partition Plan, the Arabs rejected it and then invaded is poppycock. The facts on the ground and the UN Security Council’s meeting records in MArch ’48 and the recalled Special Session of the General Assembly in April-May ’48 [to discuss UN Trusteeship for Palestine] clearly suggest otherwise.

    Is Israel necessary for Jewish security? The answer is profoundly no. That is not to deny the legitimate place of Israel today within the 1949 armistice lines (albeit with minor modifications agreed by the parties). That is not to deny the importance of Jewish-Israelis being able to celebrate Jewish cultural and religious holidays and the various facets of life that explore Jewish identity. However, these rights to culture must be considered within the context of those who do not share the same cultural traditions and who also have a right to call Israel and Palestine home.

    Jewish security is best protected through education, generosity, racial vilification laws, effective implementation of refugee law, the protection of international law and the enforcement of international criminal law. Anti-semitic acts (like any form of racism) in Europe or the West is a consequence of variety of factors. Yes, one factor is due to prejudice that has nothing to do with Israel. But so too is anti-Semitism a response to the double standards that allows Israel to maintain the occupation of Palestinians.

    http://isaacisaacs.blogspot.com/

  10. Brant
    The question we discussed was not whether the Jews need Israel but whether it was essentialthat Israel remain a Jewish state. That’s the problem with editing.
    When I said it was not amatter of if but of when and where, I was not referring to another holocaust. I was referring to the state legislated systematic discrimination against Jews and other minorities that makes it economically and socially impossible to remain in a country.
    I am currently in Israel. I visited the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv. It presents the histories of Jewish communities around the world throughout our history. What every Jewish community has in common whether it be in Persia or England or Spain or Israel in Roman times, was that there came a time when the government with the support of the people decided it was in their interest to make it untenable for their Jews to stay in their country. Different methods were used throughout history, economic measures and expulsion with the threat of murder for those who refused to leave or giveup their Jewish identity being the most common.
    It’s just the way people are. Minorities will eventually be opppressed by the majority. Having a democracy will not stop it. Some demagogue will arise and convince the people that a minority is causing them problems and to vote to oppress them. It eventually happens everywhere.
    The question is what happens to the minority. Most disappear. So far the Jews haven’t.
    The Jews are a minority everywhere they live except in Israel. How long any country can survive independently is questionable, but for as long as it does, I maintain we should support it as a Jewish majority state so that at least there Jews will not be oppressed by their own government.

  11. Boris- thanks for your clarification. I didn’t want to put words into your mouth, but I didn’t interpret your NPR piece as a concern that another Holocaust could happen. Instead, I understood you to say that we, as Jews, can never allow a perception of temporary safety to distract us from the vigilance we must observe about anti-Semitism.

    A few years ago, Brant recommended to me Scheindlin’s “A Short History of the Jewish People” (Brant’s probably rolling his eyes about this recommendation as he’s reading this). Scheindlin recounts thousands of years of oppression, persecution and murder, decade by decade, century by century, country by country. It never stops. Some good times, lots of bad times. Some good times. Lots of bad times. It’s inconceivable to me that any Jew can ignore this perspective. If history repeats itself, as it often does, there will be bad times ahead. Maybe not another Holocaust, but bad times nonetheless.

    Brant, you say that “anti-Semitism becomes a threat …only when it is legislated.” Does that mean we ignore all the steps leading up to legislation? Does that mean we don’t get upset about Boris’s son’s encounter in Madrid? Should we turn the other way at recent attacks against Montreal-area Synagogues and Jewish schools, because it wasn’t legislated? By the way, the bad times ahead could very well be technology based: The Montreal atrocities apparently were partially caused by hatred incubated by the Internet. Anti-Semitic tweeters are going to have a field day!
    Perhaps in ways we, as Jews, can’t fully understand, having a Jewish state IS essential to the future security and well being of the Jewish people. It’s a symbol to us that amidst stormy seas of centuries-long anti-Semitism, at least there is one place in the world where Jews can wear yarmulkes and feel normal.
    Marc Rosenberg

  12. Marc,

    I also appreciate Boris’ clarification. For the record, I agree that we need to remain vigilant. And I agree that we must protest anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms – and that what occurred in Madrid was very upsetting. But I don’t believe that street prejudice is necessarily a step that leads to racist legislation. If we need to be vigilant, it is in the political/legal arena where racism of any kind is rendered unacceptable.

    BTW: I feel perfectly “normal” publicly wearing my kippah here in the US. (And while we’re only subject of normalcy, it’s worth considering that a Jewish woman was recently arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall – ironically the only place in the world where such a thing is punishable by law…)

  13. I’m a bit wary of the argument from history, if only because “history teaches us,” also, that Jewish sovereignty always ends badly. Religious repression of some Jews by others, often violent; civil war; destruction of the state. It’s happened every other time, no?

  14. My issue with the state of Israel has more to do with its creation and its location and the problems that has caused. It disturbs me that Israel was created from land that like it or not was already inhabited by several different peoples who also had deep ties and history to that land. It seems particularly egregious to me how European nations in an effort to get Jews out of Europe (not to sound too paranoid) “gave” the Jews a place that they didn’t really have the ability to give.

    While I am all for the idea of a Jewish homeland and understand the need or desire for that Jewish homeland to be located where it is located, it seems like in the treatment of the Palestinians, we are doing to others what has so often been done to us – and quite frankly after the Inquisition and the pogroms and Holocaust and the ghettos and, and , and, I would like to think that we would have less hubris, more compassion and more understanding for the people that were alienated and displaced.

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