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I arrived this weekend in Jerusalem for the Board of Governors meeting of the Jewish Agency. I will be here for the next 14 days of meetings, visits, learning and exploration. During this time, I plan to tell a story about the work that we do at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and why it matters. This is a story that begins with the lives that we are changing and the kind of Israel we are investing in to secure Israel’s future. But our work goes far beyond that.

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, and the phrase “I love Israel” has become so politicized. As I start this two-week journey, I want to say something about what I mean.

Since you should always start with the familiar, let’s think about 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, I still believe, it is striving to be. In my understanding, this means a commitment to the ideals of individualism (Tocqueville’s self-interest properly understood) and freedom, and a certain minimalist view of justice. It means supporting the rights articulated in the U.S. Constitution that protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, especially when those are minorities of religion and the majority is expressed through the power of the state.

When I declare that I love America, here is also what I do NOT mean. 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 policies that its leadership pursues. Loving America does NOT require that we love President Bush or President Obama, nor does it require that we endorse Obamacare or Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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

I don’t think this is 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. That is a big loss. 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 Netanyahu or 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 the extensive social welfare system that still exists. 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 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—particularly in public—and some mainstream Jewish organizations unfortunately continue 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 (or perhaps categories of 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. Historically, a state helps protect Jews against both statist and popular anti-Semitism. A Jewish state can stand up to governments that direct their institutions to destroy them 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 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 land owners 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.

Defense for its own sake is a basic value. The second reason I am committed to Israel is that it is essential for the flourishing of 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 create 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 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 best articulated by 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:

  1. The security of the Jewish people.
  2. The flourishing of Jewish culture.
  3. 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 others. 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 own aspirations. But, I will certainly not back down nor run from my commitments 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 back on course.

As I transverse the country over the next two weeks, I hope to draw out these three values in a more explicit way through this blog and on Facebook. I promise you, I won’t avoid the difficult questions. But, I also promise you I won’t avoid celebrating the beauty and diversity that is here.

If you join me, perhaps we can together create a place where open dialogue about the hardest questions can be developed. Perhaps we can create the space we need in American Jewish life to recognize that a love of Israel will encourage an enormous variety of views, ideas and approaches towards the realization of its three key values.

I look forward to hearing from you along the way.