Israel in the Mind of America: Grappling with Diverse Narratives

About the Panelists

A’shanti F. Gholar is the founder of The Brown Girls Guide to Politics, a media platform she created to uplift the underrepresented voices of womxn of color in politics. A’shanti also serves as the president of Emerge, the only organization dedicated to recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office. A’Shanti’s written responses were added to this transcript as she was unable to participate in the in-person seminar which took place on September 16, 2021.

Jonathan Kessler has devoted his professional life to assembling thought-leaders and strengthening inter-communal alliances. For 18 years he was a member of AIPAC’s senior staff. In March, he launched Heart of a Nation to bring together progressive Americans, progressive Israelis, and progressive Palestinians to make all three societies better.

Adina Siff is a junior at Georgetown Day High School. She is an active member of her school’s feminist and Jewish affinity groups. Previously, Adina served as president of the student body at the Jewish Primary Day School. When not debating with her parents and friends, Adina enjoys creative writing, listening to Taylor Swift, and hiking.

Rabbi Bill Rudolph is the semi-retired Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. He has grappled with, and help fashion, the case for Israel over a career spanning 50 years. He also serves as Co-Chair of the Greater Washington Forum on Israeli-Arab Issues.

Panel Discussion

Jonathan Kessler: I’ve never met anyone in my life who doesn’t have an opinion about Israel. And the question is, where do their opinions come from? Which portrayals of Israel have been most compelling for you personally?

Bill Rudolph: So, I’m older than 75, younger than 90, and I think most people anywhere near my generation read the novel Exodus.

Kessler: You’re referring to the novel that was translated to 50 languages? The one that was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks? Later made into a movie that was seen by millions of people? Adina, you’re 16 years old, have you read the book or seen the movie?

Adina Siff: I have not.

Rudolph: I read the book first. Right before I went to Israel, and needless to say, it excited me a lot. And I guess that’s why I went. Now I watch Baker and the Beauty.

Kessler: Adina, you are part of a generation that consumes media in many, many forms. Which portrayals of Israel are most compelling for you?

Siff: I have watched Baker and the Beauty. That’s one of my favorite shows.

Rudolph: Well, that’s something we have in common.

Siff: I think the most important portrayal of Israel, for me, was probably a video that I watched at a fellowship about Israel last fall, it was a clip of an interaction at the Gaza border.

Kessler: A’shanti, how old are you and what’s the most impactful portrayal of Israel you’ve ever experienced?

A’shanti Gholar: I’m 40 years old. I was born in the “late 1900’s” as the GenZ like to say. I haven’t read Exodus, nor have I seen the movie. I’ve been to Israel twice and what I found most impactful was how peaceful it was, how welcoming the people were, and how you can’t base your opinion of a country off of what you see on the mainstream media.

Kessler: Reality is always more complicated than constructed narratives. David Ben Gurion was once asked what do you think of the book Exodus? He said, “It’s the single most impactful book on Israel ever published. It’s poorly-written, and pure propaganda, but it’s a very influential book.” Of the dozen narratives that Bill and I grew up with, all were positive and mutually reinforcing: Redemption of the Unwanted. Ingathering of the Exiles. Making the Desert Bloom. Not a lot of negativity there. America’s Most Reliable Ally. Outpost of Democracy. The Few Against the Many. Within the America we grew up in, there really was a consensus when it came to the narrative portrayal of Israel. At least that’s the way the committed Jewish community saw it. There were the consensus narratives and then there were the marginal narratives. And beyond the marginal narratives, there were the narratives of Israel’s detractors: Zionism Equals Racism. Israel is an Apartheid State. Then Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer put out a book called The Israel Lobby, which said that Israel is an albatross, a burden, around the neck of the United States. And in recent years, not only have the consensus narratives within the Jewish community broken down, but America has been exposed to positive, critical, and denigrating narratives, simultaneously. Adina, how would you describe your current relationship with the State of Israel?

Siff: That’s a really good question. How I feel about Israel, is difficult to separate from how I feel about the conflict. I’m not sure right now how much the idea of Israel can be separated from Israel the modern state. Since kindergarten I’ve wanted to go live there, and I still plan on doing that after I graduate college. But I’ve learned that it is not the perfect place that I was also taught by the adults around me when I was in elementary school. To be quite honest, I’m not sure I would call myself a Zionist. Because I’m not sure if my definition of it is the same as other people’s definitions of it. Among my generation, at least online, I think it’s used more as a buzzword than an actual identifier.

Kessler: I saw a statistic the other day that surprised me. When American Jews were asked, “Do you consider yourself pro-Israel?” a majority said they couldn’t answer the question because it was too vague. And, lest you think that this is only a young person’s response, the poll I’m referring to was of Jews 35 to 60. Bill, how would you describe your relationship with Israel today?

Rudolph: Israel is very much part of my being. Rabbi Harris quoted an article by Rabbi Donniel Hartman called Liberal Zionism and the Troubled Committed. (Kessler holds up article) I would be in the committed and somewhat-troubled category. I don’t think Israel is the main cause of the Middle East conflict, but everyone seems to think they are. Whenever Israel is mentioned on the radio or on TV or on whatever people watch these days, I feel my heart beating faster.

Kessler: A’shanti, how would you describe your relationship with the State of Israel?

Gholar: My relationship with Israel is now through Heart of a Nation and I am excited to explore that relationship moving forward with other like-minded progressives who care about the entire ecosystem of the U.S.-Israel-Palestine relationship. The organization that first introduced me to Israel simply wasn’t addressing the social, economic, and cultural issues associated with Israel and Palestine that I have grown to care about. Heart of a Nation really came about at the right time for me.

Kessler: Bill, of all the narratives, and portrayal of Israel, which do you find most frustrating, provocative, and infuriating? Those words mean different things to me, so I’m using all three.

Rudolph: Well, they’re all the same to me. They all get me upset. I scream a lot about what I read about Israel, because it seems it’s not right, it’s not true, it’s not just. Some of the items that are infuriating, are the BDS kind of accusations, such as “Israel is an apartheid country,” and “Israel is a colonial enterprise, and an occupier.” If anyone really takes the time to study any of those accusations, they’ll see that it’s BDS without the “D.” Those things really infuriate me.

Gholar: I can sum all of this up in how people view democracies, including Israel. Democracies are compelling, frustrating, provocative, and infuriating because they are not perfect. The U.S. is not perfect. Israel is not perfect. Israel is a democracy working to maintain a democracy, and democracies are fragile. How the countries leaders work to maintain that democracy compels, frustrates, and infuriates me.

Siff: I see a distinction between provocative and infuriating, because I think provocative is a good thing. Something that makes you want to stand up, and express what you believe in, is not the same as someone genuinely angering you to the point where it’s infuriating. What I actually find most infuriating is when someone Jewish shares their view of Israel and is deemed a better or worse Jew for it. That’s happened to me. I’ve been told that I’m a less-good Jew — or even a bad Jew — because of my opinion on Israel. The idea that we all have to agree on Israel has always been off-putting to me.

Kessler: Generations of Jews have been told that they can argue every word of the Torah but can only discuss Israel within certain parameters. That can be very frustrating for a lot of people and, as you put it Adina, quite off-putting. Personally, I’m frustrated when Israel is portrayed as right-wing. I never accepted that America was right-wing under the last administration when half of America wasn’t identifying itself as right-of-center. Israel today is also split. So, when people say that Israel is obviously right-wing because of Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s frustrating for me.

What do I find provocative? When people refer to discrimination in Israel — because there is discrimination in Israel. There’s discrimination in the United States. There’s discrimination in all countries. I find it provocative, because it’s true and I know that not everyone who talks about discrimination in Israel is an enemy of the Jewish people. What do I find infuriating? Walt and Mearsheimer thesis that Israel is a burden and not an asset to the United States. That is so blatantly false, when you actually look at the record, but it is accepted as true by too many people. Adina, you’re exposed to really critical perspectives on Israel. Narratives that don’t conform to those that Bill and I grew up with. How do you process these critical narratives of Israel?

Siff: I try not to be afraid of them. I think a lot of pro-Israel people I’m close to, when they’re confronted with information that is very anti-what-they-believe, it’s really difficult for them. I follow an account on Instagram that pretty much advocates for an end to Israel, and I also look at IDF’s posts, and there are some really problematic ones on both sides. People call out each side, but I think that being exposed to critical narratives is a good thing, because pretending that they don’t exist is not going to make them go away. At the end of the day, there is reasoning behind where everyone comes from, so if you get past the basic stuff, you can figure out what is actually frustrating people about the conflict, and then work to figure out how to fix it.

Question from the audience: When you see an Instagram that says, “Israel has no right to exist” or “Israel is not legitimate,” how do you respond, where do you draw the line?

Siff: Well, Israel is legitimate, and it does exist as a state. So, when I see people say that it does not exist or that it’s illegitimate, I scroll past. I draw the line at hate speech. There aren’t specific things that make me say, “Oh, I won’t engage with this.” Because I rarely engage with any of the information I receive online. Most of the time, I’m just scrolling through, and I scroll right past. Maybe I internalize it a bit — it becomes part of my category of information surrounding the conflict. And when I go to the IDF Instagram page, and scroll through that, and I see how they’re portraying events occurring in Israel — I internalize that a little bit too.

Kessler: I so admire those who can approach even the most critical narratives fearlessly. You can agree, you can disagree, you can find truths and falsehoods in every presentation. I believe it’s best to approach all narratives associated with Israel without fear. I got a call the other day from a mom, very distraught. She said, “You don’t know me, but I know you used to work on campus, and I need talking points. I’m up against a terrible detractor of Israel, and I want very much to be able to win the argument we are having.” I asked, “Who are you arguing with?” She said, “My daughter.” I said, “Okay, first talking point would be to tell her you love her. Second, give her a hug. Third, tell her that her opinion matters to you.” At which point the woman told me I was no help whatsoever and ended the call. I think she expected me to recite Myths and Facts, but I have three children, and I know better than to treat them as adversaries. A’shanti, how do you deal with critical narratives about Israel?

Gholar: When it comes to countries and their policies, I don’t focus on just the leaders of those countries, especially if they are doing things I don’t agree with politically. During the Trump years when I would travel abroad (pre-pandemic), I would tell people to not judge America on what he was saying and doing. This is the same approach I take with other countries. I think about the people that live there that want to make their country better. I process the negative narratives by learning what is happening on the ground — what the citizens that we are not hearing from want, think, and need. I take my cue on how to process things from them, especially from those who do not feel seen, heard, or recognized and have been marginalized in society.

Kessler: Bill, what would you say to a congregant who is jaded about Israel?

Rudolph: That’s a good question. I think there’s something very special about Israel. It’s just a very special place. When you read about Israel in the newspaper, maybe you’re not so sure, but if you go beyond that, it really is unique and exciting. Is it a light unto the nations? It’s not there yet. But it’s going in that direction as much as any other country I can think of.

Kessler: Adina, what would you say to a classmate who comes to you very unhappy with what they’re reading about Israel? And you have one shot at sharing a narrative or a perspective to keep them engaged a bit longer if you can. What would you say?

Siff: Well, that’s actually happened to me. A friend came to me and said that her parents were promoting Israel in a way that she didn’t know what was true anymore, because she saw what progressive leaders were saying and didn’t know how they could be compatible. That’s how I feel as well. So, I explained my view of the conflict, with all the caveats I could, because I don’t think the point is to convince people what I believe. We’ve been trying that for a really, really long time and it’s not working. I think the main goal, is just trying to empower people to form their own opinions and encourage them to read all sides of the news — not just the side that makes you comfortable.

Kessler: We struggle to find narratives that are nuanced. Because there’s such a dichotomy between the language and reference points of conflict, and the language and reference points of conflict resolution. A’shanti, which narrative about Israel would most captivate your peers?

Gholar: For my fellow Black Americans, it would be the narrative of inclusion and fairness for people who do not look like the Hollywood stars in the movie Exodus. It’s really that simple.

Question from the audience: Will it be easier to engage Dems, progressives in particular, now that Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu have left office?

Kessler: When Trump was president and Netanyahu was prime minister, it was extraordinarily difficult to make a progressive case for Israel. On campus, Jewish affinity toward Israel dropped more precipitously when those two leaders overlapped than in the previous forty years combined. The fact that Trump threw his arms around Netanyahu created enormous cognitive dissonance for Jewish young people.

Siff: That resonates really strongly with me, you can ask my dad. I went to four AIPAC Policy Conferences — four years in a row. The last time I went, Vice President Pence spoke. I listened to him talk about how incredible Israel was, and how his boss was the biggest supporter of Israel there had ever been, and I starting to cry. I cried a really long time. Here was man I see as racist, homophobic, transphobic — basically awful in just about every way I can think of — saying he is a huge supporter of Israel. That was the beginning of my separation from believing that everything Israel was right and good.

Kessler: I’ve seen pro-Israel crowds cheer Nancy Pelosi. And I’ve seen them cheer Donald Trump. I understand the logic behind that. But for many young people, cheering political antagonists just doesn’t feel right. And for more and more Democratic voters, it doesn’t feel right. And for progressive activists, it will never feel right. We can argue with them and try to convince them with better talking points. But at a certain point, we have to accept that the old narratives that were so compelling for the preponderance of Americans, including Democrats and progressives, now fall on a great many deaf ears. Heart of a Nation is bringing together American, Israeli, and Palestinian progressives, not as an image-burnishing exercise, but to genuinely better all three societies. The success of such a paradigm-shifting community of purpose would certainly be a welcome addition the narratives most prominently associated with Israel, the US-Israel relationship, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About Heart of a Nation

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