Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Love Public Transportation

I love public transportation. The idea of a system that transports large numbers of people around town in a clean, safe, reliable and cheap way cannot be overestimated. I am a true supporter of public transportation. I really am.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that the buses in my town are consistently late. It also occurred to me that the bus routes run far from the populations who really need them, making public transportation almost irrelevant as an alternative to the private car. To make things even worse, I discovered that there have been numerous cases of corruption and mismanagement in the city’s latest bus purchase deal.

You might ask, if I believe in public transportation, how can I criticize it?

While sitting on the bus on a particularly long ride home one day, I found my thoughts drifting from public transportation to my feelings about Israel. I really love the idea of Israel – a safe homeland for the Jewish people, a center of culture and religious autonomy. As a Jew, I feel an almost primordial connection to the idea of Israel. And I’m always proud when Israel or an Israeli is applauded for some outstanding achievement, even if I had nothing to do with it. 

However, it seems that Israel is drifting away from the very idea I so strongly believe in. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t hear disturbing news about religious intolerance, high-level corruption or state-sponsored racism. This is without even getting into the minefield that is “The Conflict” and Israel’s role in it.

Yet, criticizing Israel seems always to be the wrong thing to do as a Jew. How can you love Israel and the idea behind the state and still criticize it? Any open attempt to start a discussion about Israel provokes questions about whether I’m really committed to it. I cannot mention, for instance, Israel’s state-sponsored bias against Reform and Conservative Jews or the widespread corruption of its elected officials. Trying to mention the racist, state-employed rabbis who just recently called upon Israeli Jews not to rent or sell property to (Israeli!) Arabs is hard without getting suspicious looks from fellow Jewish community members, or far worse.

When the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) moved to pass a ‘Loyalty Oath’ law requiring non-Jewish immigrants to swear loyalty and obedience to the ‘Jewish State’ even the most pro-Israeli advocates here shifted uncomfortably. The reaction among American Jewry was not one of open criticism and disgust but came in the form of washed-down press releases urging Knesset members to ‘reconsider’ the motion. There was little public discussion or exchange of ideas, even within the Jewish sphere. It seemed like our communities were satisfied to tow the party line and hope the whole uncomfortable incident would quickly blow over.

And then we have Israel’s actions in “The Conflict.” Here is where consistency becomes almost impossible. It amazes me how some of the most liberal people in the U.S can make a 180 degree turn as soon as it comes to Israel: liberal Jews oppose torture in the “War against Terror,” but consider Israel’s torture practices right and justified. End of discussion. The same double standard applies when comparing American and Israeli policy on other issues of human rights and international law, from the indefinite detention and arrest of ‘Terror Suspects’ (without due process) to the disregard for international laws, the displacement of native people in an occupied land, executions without a trial, disproportionate use of force, two-tiered legal systems based on ethnicity – the list goes on.

Any mention of Israel’s many wrongdoings in its conflict with the Palestinians earns me the title “Self-Hating Jew.” I know of Jewish individuals who were effectively ousted from their communities after daring to state that Israel’s actions were wrong and reflected neither Jewish values nor intelligent foreign policy. But I do love being a Jew and I do love and care about Israel. So why can’t I talk about how far it has strayed from its founding ideals?

It seems to me that as American Jews we need to separate our connection and support to the idea behind the state of Israel from our actual opinion of Israel’s actions on the ground. If we really care about the idea, then it’s not only our right but our duty to place a mirror in front of the state that is so painfully deviating from it.