When I was 19 years old, I attended a protest against American involvement in the first Gulf War against Iraq. I was shocked to find my fellow protesters with posters containing vitriolic statements against Israel. My younger self did not understand why, in a war between the United States and Iraq, Israel was being vilified. It was at this time I realised how perceptions of Israel in the Diaspora affected me.
A year later, I went to Israel for the first time … and fell in love with the chaos that is Israel. As I walked on the land, through archaeological remains, wading through centuries of history, everything felt relevant and alive. At the time, I did not know Hebrew, but the words swam over me like a WhatsApp chat meeting the Rosetta stone, where modernity and antiquity – the present and the past – intersected. This was the timeless home of my people. It was beautiful. Insane, loud, messy and beautiful.
Fast forward 10 years. One day, while reading a newspaper on a bus, I was horrified to learn that three Israeli soldiers, held captive in a Palestinian jail, were literally ripped apart by an angry Palestinian mob.
I couldn’t believe it. The Israeli government at the time bombed the jail in retaliation. A random person sitting behind me asked if everything was okay. I showed him the article. He said, “I see what you mean. I can’t believe that Israel bombed them.” And that was it. Nothing else. Complete oversight of the barbarism that dismembered the Israeli soldiers. Clearly, Israeli lives did not matter. It was clear to me then that no matter how many times Israel showed restraint, provided humanitarian aid, shared technological advancements, medical research, was internationally recognised for literature, music and science, regardless of more left-wing or right-wing governments, Israel would never be judged on an equal playing field as other countries.
It was at that moment that I truly became a Zionist. My Zionism became about supporting Israel’s right to exist no matter what, to show my love for Israel no matter what, because if I couldn’t do that, and the Jewish people everywhere couldn’t do that, who would?
This year, I was challenged – how to support and show love for Israel when the Israeli government was doing something that I felt threatened the core Jewish and democratic values upon which our Jewish homeland was built. So, I joined with others to express outrage against the government’s proposed judicial reforms because of our unwavering love for Israel, because of our deep-rooted commitment to support the essence of our nation-state, for there is a Divine precedent for showing love through tochecha (rebuke) (Lev. 19:17; Deut. 28:15-25).
The Israeli Declaration of Independence includes the principles of: “freedom, justice and peace … complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture… offering full and equal citizenship and due representation to the Arab inhabitants of the State.”
These are the principles the protest movement is fighting for. These are the principles of my Judaism. This is the Israel that is my homeland.
At a recent talk hosted by the Zionist Federation of Australia, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggested that Israel’s current crossroads opens the door to dialogue about the Israel we want now and moving forward. We are creating history right now. Zionism is being reworked as we speak.
Thus, we must ask ourselves: What is the Israel we want in the 21st century and beyond? Just as Israelis are the citizens of the State of Israel, the Jewish people, wherever they reside, remain the nation of Eretz Yisrael. What happens in Israel reflects upon Jews everywhere. And what we, as a Jewish community do, here, in Australia affects Israel.
So, what can we do?
We can educate ourselves about the situation and why it matters not just for Israelis, but for Jews around the world.
We can join organisations such as the Zionist Federation of Australia and urge Jews in Australia to write letters to the Israeli Ambassador to Australia – our voice to Israeli government – sharing the potential detrimental impact of the Israeli government’s current direction on Israel and Jews throughout the world.
We can visit Israel and send our children to Israel, showing our support.
Those of us in Melbourne can join the weekly demonstrations at Caulfield Park in solidarity with Israelis living amongst us, showing them that this is not their problem, but our problem, an issue affecting the entire Jewish people.
Let us join together to fight for the Israel we are proud of, with its flaws and imperfections, with its accomplishments and contributions, with governments we agree and disagree with, but with the faith that the Jewish values and democratic principles upon which our Jewish homeland was built will continue to prevail.
Rabbi Allison Conyer is rabbi of Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue in Melbourne.