Loving Judaism but questioning Israel

If politics are personal, then let me say this. I love almost everything about the Judaism I practice: Born into a Jewish family, but raised without any formal religious education, I have in recent years become a member of a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. I love singing the ancient prayers. I love our rabbis and the families in the congregation who have become our friends. I love that Shabbat gives me a time and a place to converse with my young daughter about gratitude and her responsibility to other people. But certain parts of the Saturday service also give me uncomfortable pause, and during these High Holy Days, this season of introspection and confession for Jews, I might as well come out with it. Each Saturday morning, we praise God who “chooses Israel;” we ask God to “redeem Israel;” we plead with God to “shine a new light on Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance.”

We, the Jewish people, are Israel and Israel is us.

I see that Israel the nation-state and Israel the historical-theological concept are separate things, but when I pray, the two ideas reverberate together, and the conflation troubles me. In the practice of Judaism, we petition God to protect “Israel;” I hesitate before I voice this plea.

Only these days, I’m not so crazy about Israel – the nation-state, that is. I don’t like that on the eve of these holidays and at the moment when Mahmoud Abbas was making his bid at the United Nations for Palestinian statehood, Israel announced the approval of 1,100 new housing units in East Jerusalem. I’m ashamed that Israel continues to draw criticism from human rights groups for the demolition of homes in the West Bank and, sharing blame with the Palestinians, for waging a conflict over land with the lives of innocent people. Intellectually, I see that Israel the nation-state and Israel the historical-theological concept are separate things, but when I pray, the two ideas reverberate together, and the conflation troubles me. In the practice of Judaism, we petition God to protect “Israel;” I hesitate before I voice this plea.

Leftist intellectuals like Peter Beinart and the late Tony Judt have said that Jews like me will abandon Judaism exactly because of this dissonance, but I have no intention of doing so. Thus stuck, I asked some rabbis for spiritual help. How, I wondered, can I pray to God on behalf of Israel, when I find the actions of that nation state so troubling? How do I comfortably align myself with “Israel,” this name with a million meanings?

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