My family shed "tears of joy" on May 14, 1948, when the Jewish State of Israel was established as a safe haven for Jews. I was five at the time and didn't quite understand its significance, but I had been taught that an integral part of Judaism was anti anti-Semitism. A number of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) lived in my neighborhood, some of whom had been in concentration camps. I also had relatives who had died in the Holocaust, and my parents warned me to never trust the Goyim (Gentiles).
When I grew up and evolved from Orthodox to secular Jew, I still felt a non-religious affinity to my Jewish "homeland." I had no desire to make Israel my home, but I viewed it as a prophylactic against future Holocausts. I later learned that the establishment of Israel was not a day of unadulterated joy for everyone -- because Jews settled in a country inhabited by other people and forced many of them to leave. In other words, Israel created Palestinian DPs. Nevertheless, I continued to support Israel, focusing mostly on the anti-Semitism of countries in the Middle East that denied Israel's right to exist. However, I had a more nuanced view that required balancing security for Israelis with human rights for Palestinians.
I also began to think that the Right of Return had outlived its usefulness. I'm fine with Israel taking in Jews who live in danger elsewhere, but not for giving immediate citizenship to Jews like me solely because my mother happened to be Jewish. Aren't displaced Palestinians more deserving of the right to return than I am? Most Diaspora Jews (Jews living outside of Israel) disagree with me and support the Jewish right of return, even though you can't literally "return" to a place you've never been.
Much has been written about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to President Obama's diplomatic initiatives with Iran and whether House Speaker John Boehner should have invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the president. However, I want to focus on Netanyahu's Zionist notion that all Jews living outside of Israel are in exile and should become Israeli citizens. In a recent piece, I described my view that patriotism involves pointing out your country's faults and working to make it better. As a patriotic American, I resent Netanyahu telling me that I'm living in exile. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States. I prefer the words of its rabbi at a dedication ceremony in 1841: "This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem...."
After the recent terrorist attack in Paris, Netanyahu called for all European Jews to flee Europe and become Israeli citizens. And where would he house them -- in even more bulldozed Palestinian farms and homes? How about encouraging Jews to make their own countries better, rather than run away? Netanyahu seems eager to hand Adolph Hitler a posthumous victory: a Jew-free Europe.
My only reason to accept Israeli citizenship would be if I could improve the country by eliminating some of its terrible, internal policies. For instance, Israeli law forces secular and non-Orthodox Jews to comply with the religious monopoly of the Orthodox in matters of conversion, marriage, and other intrusions on behavior. I married Sharon in South Carolina with no religious test required, but Jews in Israel may only have an Orthodox wedding regardless of their religious beliefs. Were I an Orthodox Jew in Israel, Sharon and I would still have had to travel to another country to marry because she is not Jewish.
When it comes to women's rights, parts of Israel are like Muslim countries, requiring modest dress so men won't become aroused, making women pray separately so men can't see them, and restricting where women can sit on certain public busses. I think Israel is better than most (maybe all) other countries in the Middle East, but I don't want to grade on a curve.
Were it not for the Holocaust, I don't think there would be a Jewish state of Israel to provide a safe haven for Jews. Hitler did not distinguish between religious and secular Jews, and neither should Israel in official state policy.
Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948 called for a Jewish state that "ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex." However, the Israeli cabinet recently approved a bill that would define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving national rights only for Jews. While not yet law, this anti-democratic bill would officially relegate the 20 percent of non-Jews living in Israel to second-class status. Such a law would be an Orwellian modification of their Declaration of Independence saying, in effect, "All citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others."
Israel is facing the same kind of struggle that many other countries have encountered -- between democracy and theocracy. Unfortunately, Israel has recently been headed in the wrong direction. I will again become a supporter of Israel when it lives up to the ideals in its Declaration of Independence by putting human rights and social justice above sectarian concern and treating its minorities as truly equal citizens.