These past weeks have been ones of anxiety and terror in Israel. The phrase that seems to pop up most in newspaper accounts is that, once again, violence in Israel is "heating up," an understatement when it comes to the brutality of the details. Some people see the signs as a rehash of past Intifadas, and the war weary know only too well where this all may lead. But something significant has changed, and it's important to name it. Whereas in the past, American Jews could be counted on to defend Israel, particularly in a time of vulnerability, today the answer is more likely to be "It's complicated."
Loyalty is actually not that complicated.
You can be a loyal friend of Israel and still find Israel's politics or policies troubling. Like a friend in need, you sometimes must put aside differences when your friend is in pain because you understand that this is what is demanded of a friendship: intimacy and support in a time of crisis.
I was recently teaching a group of Israelis and Americans who serve on college campuses as Israel educators. Campuses today are often a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. These educators reported that some executive directors of Hillels don't want to do any Israel programs for fear of protests. I've spoken to rabbis who balk at defending Israel from the pulpit. Mostly they don't bring it up. Where the mention of Israel used to bring pride, now the very word in some circles is a source of embarrassment or discomfort.
The quote above from Maimonides expresses the unambiguous love that the sages of the Talmud had for Israel. Even the dirt felt special because it was Jewish dirt. And it raises a question for those who question their feelings about Israel. What if there were no Israel? While most of us cannot remember a world without Israel, some do. It is not a fact we can take for granted in a country that was recognized on the world stage only in 1948. It makes all of us ask ourselves: what would be the most serious consequence of not having the State of Israel in the future?
Before the State, Theodor Herzl predicted that the very presence of Israel would magnify and uplift the world: "The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind." It's a rosy and aspirational picture but not far from reality when you consider the technical, spiritual, medical and cultural gifts Israel has given the world.
And we need not turn to Herzl alone. John F. Kennedy said that, "Israel was not created in order to disappear. Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy, and it honors the sword of freedom."
So what would the Middle East look like if there were no Israel? What would our Jewish Diaspora community do were there no refuge in times of despair? Think of the fate of Jews from Yemen and Syria, Russia and Ethiopia, France and the Ukraine - to name but a few. They found a friend in Israel when they could no longer live in comfort or safety where they were. Israel does not say to Jews in need worldwide, "It's complicated." Instead, the message is "Welcome Home."
It's time for us to think about what loyalty means, even a complicated loyalty - if that's what it must be for some. It must fundamentally involve our love, our allegiance, our pride, our support and our willingness to put aside differences when the country is in pain. Blue, white and red cannot forever be the colors of a flag stained in blood.