There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.
The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.
But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.
The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.
The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.
Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.