I found an old button (not the kind that closed or opens a shirt, but the kind that has a printed slogan and attaches to your clothing with a pin) from college.
On its face it reads ישראל ❤❤ אני — which means ‘I love Israel’; simple phrase, right? Actually, not simple. If we’re going to engage in a grownup conversation, loving a country — any country — is quite a complex web of feelings. A country means so many different things to a person, and the the words on the button can serve to push a lot of different buttons, if you get my drift. Back in the summer of 1967 I was a 9 year old camper at Camp Massad (it no longer exists) in the Poconos. The breaking news of the war was riveting. When I came home from camp, a map of Israel and a portrait of Moshe Dayan with his iconic eye patch adorned my wall.
Fast forward just under 50 years (!) to this past יום העצמאות ) Israeli Independence Day). My 59 year old self turned to a nostalgic soundtrack provided by several of Israel’s celebrated pop stars, and I remembered my days as a volunteer on Kib-butz Sa’ad back in 1982, as well as the Jerusalem apartment Sharona and I lived in back in ‘87-‘89. Memories of old friends, people we miss when their name comes up or when they post on Facebook. And there’s much more to all of it; demonstra-tions protesting the war in Lebanon, struggling with all sorts of complex issues surrounding Israel.
Being an American and loving a faraway country whose ancient name can be found on almost any page in my prayer book — I cannot pretend that such love is a simple matter. I’m not the 9 year old idolizing a war hero, and Israeli society was evolved is so many ways since over the last five decades.
One of my teachers who had a wonderful impact on me as a student at the University of Judaism (now called American Jewish University) in Los Angeles moved to Israel and wrote several influential books. I still remember with terribly conflicting emotions the moment I hit the Unsubscribe button when I could no longer read the words he sent out in his pronouncements about American Jewish college students who voiced their criticisms of Israel. How could I part ways with my teacher over his words? It’s complicated. I didn’t feel terrific when I decided that I could no longer read his political writings. I felt sadness but I also felt a strange sense of relief. Life: People sometimes part ways over big issues.
News item: Natalie Portman decided not to accept a prestigious Israel prize. Her decision has galvanized folks both left and right. And Ms. Portman, born in Israel, is a highly visible American celebrity. You can find writers celebrating or vilifying her decision. It’s complicated.
My own reticence to publicly opine in matters related to Israel is not so unusual; many of my colleagues share this stance. Because Israel has become — especially, over the last decade — so intensely politicized, many of us view such conversa-tions as the equivalent of ‘the third rail,’ something you just don’t touch. How ironic (and sad) that a country whose name adorns most of my prayer book has become nearly taboo. Of course we love Israel! Get in a spirited conversation about Israeli politics? Are you kidding?!
The words on the old button will always evoke many feelings, bitter and sweet. It’s complicated.