With summer approaching, I’m catching up on The Good Wife, the courtroom and political drama that has played on CBS over the past five years and is now streaming on Netflix.
There’s a wonderful scene early in season 2 when Peter Florrick, who is running for state’s attorney, seeks to establish pro-Israel credentials after having been caught on film carrying a copy of Jimmy Carter’s controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid via a Yom Kippur break-fast organized by Eli Gold, his adviser and campaign manager.
Around the dinner table with big donors, who are Jewish, Gold attempts to steer conversation in the desired direction when Grace, Florrick’s teenage daughter, brings up the question of the Gaza flotilla. Eyebrows are raised, glares are traded and damage control is attempted. Florrick’s track record on Israel and anti-Semitism is impeccable, Gold stresses, while Florrick’s mother awkwardly asks about the fundamentals of Judaism.
The humour of the scene lies in the teenager’s candid remarks as potentially undercutting the election prospects of her deeply flawed father, a figure we are, at best, morally ambivalent about. But, humour aside, the scene is especially powerful to me because it raises questions that we in the Jewish community are often grappling with, though not always explicitly enough.
The questions are these: Is it possible to feel attached to Israel, support Israel, love Israel, and yet be publicly troubled by Israeli policies? Is it possible to love Israel, and yet feel outrage? Is it possible to feel committed to Israel, and yet want to see it change?
In the same episode, Florrick’s wife, Alicia, is confronted by her brother in the kitchen. Emboldened by red wine, he tells her how much he dislikes Florrick and implores her to leave the marriage. With the humiliation of having been publicly cheated on with prostitutes, and with illegal dealings under her husband’s belt, we know Alicia has been struggling over whether to stay with him. Marriage and divorce are like that. Except for the kinds of invisible emotional separations some couples fall prey to, you’re generally either in or you’re out. And, as pop psychologists have long told us, demanding that one’s partner change is usually a recipe for disaster.
But connection to Israel isn’t binary in the way marriage is. Nor is Israel, to Diaspora Jews, like a spouse.
To Israeli citizens, the State of Israel, as a democracy, is by definition meant to be the public representation of their collective preferences.
And to Jews worldwide, Israel is the sovereign expression of Jewish nationhood. So, by definition, Israelis along with Diaspora Jews have a right and even obligation to wrestle with the politics and policies of the Jewish State. Using the family metaphor, Israel is more akin to our children: we, the Jewish nation, created the state, and we, the members of that Jewish nation, have an obligation to steer its policies in the right direction. This, despite the fear many Diaspora Jews experience, which leads them to consider Israel more akin to a parent who can do no wrong.
So, back to the discussion around that Yom Kippur break-fast table in The Good Wife: Can one indeed be frustrated, critical or even outraged by one’s country (or symbolic homeland, as the case may be) and still feel a deep sense of attachment?
The question is really two-pronged. We can ask, sociologically, whether there are individuals and groups who do manage to juggle these two positions. And we can ask, philosophically, whether there is an ethical basis for doing so.
On the first question, there are enough individuals and organizations, historically and today, who have combined both stances to demonstrate that it is not an empirical oxymoron. Organizations like Peace Now,
J Street, Ameinu and the New Israel Fund all attempt to right wrongs they see in Israel, the country to which their supporters feel great attachment. And, in the past, there were organizations like Breira in the 1970s, which pushed for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
On the question of ethics, I believe it is both ethically acceptable and morally desirable to question and to wrestle. In the face of perceived injustice, one has a duty to act. Now, certainly one person’s perceived injustice is sometimes another person’s defensive act in the face of another’s injustice. But at least one has the duty to start the conversation – over dinner and beyond.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.