The Conspiracy

Talking about not talking about Israel: Or, addressing the Israel problem


Immigrants arrive in New York City in an 1887 illustration. New York City today is home to the largest Diaspora community in the world. | Public domain, via Wikimedia

We, the American Jewish community, have an Israel problem, and we need to talk about it.

It’s not the fact that Israel exists. It’s not the fact that it’s a politically fraught topic to discuss — although that’s certainly part of it. It’s the mere fact that Israel and Zionism as abstract concepts are so difficult to discuss within the American-Jewish community.

I wrote my piece last week, arguing (among other things) that talking excessively about Israeli culture while we’re here in the United States is somewhat upsetting, given the sheer number of issues that American LGBTQ Jews face today in both irreligious (often anti-religious) queer spaces and in religious spaces. I wasn’t expecting to be accused of cowering to anti-Semitism and burying my head in the sand in response to the realities of the profound discomfort that many faced at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference late last month. My piece was not meant to undermine or mitigate the pain that was caused.

What came through in many of the comments and responses to my piece was the fact that while I might consider talking about Israel a luxury, other Jews cannot afford to ignore — if that’s even the correct term to use — the intersection between their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel.

Perhaps this is the root of the problem: Given the inextricable connection between American and Israeli Jewry today, merely discussing Israel in the community today in any terms more specific than general platitudes and sweeping, generally unobjectionable statements is a potentially dangerous one. And this — not the political responses to the military occupation, not the political roles that American Jews should play in Israeli politics — is at the core of a problem that we have today in the American Jewish world. If I cannot talk about Israel without being called a self-hating Jew, or accused of cowering to the agenda of anti-Zionists and anti-Semites, then we need to learn how to talk about talking about Israel before we actually begin to tackle more substantive issues here.

At its most basic level, discussion of Israel is nearly impossible within the Jewish community. How can we expect anything better from those not within our fold?

This is not a justification of the protests at the conference. Simply discussing Israel and the complicated relationship that many of us American Jews have with the idea of a Jewish national state is one fraught with problems that are inherent to any discussions on Israel. If Israel is so intimate and close to us here in the United States, then we have all the more reason to respond to it critically, to examine it and to interrogate it — and I am in no way arguing for the minimization of these important conversations.

But we can also never forget that we are American Jews, Diasporic Jews. Even if our hearts are supposedly in the East, in Israel, we are still here in the West. And contrary to those who cite it negatively, we should still be proud of where we are and the fact that we live in a vibrant diasporic community here in the US. Israel can — and perhaps should — be a part of our Jewish identities, but it should not be the pinnacle. Israel should not be the focal point of our identity in the same way, as I have argued before, that Bibi Netanyahu is not the spokesperson for world Jewry.

When we elevate it to the point that we have, then we forget to talk about the Diaspora, to talk about the lived experiences and intersections of queerness and Jewishness here in the United States. It is important to discuss not only the stigma that we as queer people face in religious spaces (and how that stigma endures even in more progressive Jewish spaces), but we must also talk about the stigma that people of faith face in irreligious queer spaces.

The community and country in which we find ourselves today is not decrepit, nor is it defunct, nor is it any less our home. It is beautiful and provides us with a space to build a vibrant Jewish community. And this is something that we need to discuss and interrogate as well. My Americanness is inseparable from my Jewishness, and my Jewishness inseparable from my Americanness. We have a responsibility to understand the intersection of these two identities as much as anything else. My need to talk about living here in the United States, in the Diaspora, is not reflective of a desire to completely ignore Israel — only to understand that it is but one part of my identity as a Jewish person.

The Hebrew word that most closely translates to Diaspora is גלות/galut, which is related to the infinitive verb לגלות/ligloth, which translates as “to reveal.” There is something revelatory about the Diaspora, something which we lose when we turn our attention as a community eastward. In the process of learning to be diasporic, we can, in turn, shed light on some of the many positives of living in our Diasporic outposts. We might never be able to turn away fully from Israel — nor should we. But we must also not negate so much of the innovation and the vibrancies that have emerged in our Diasporic communities as well.

When the conversation in our community turns to Israel, it becomes all-encompassing, even dangerous. We forget to talk about here and now. If we’re going to talk about Israel, then we should first start by trying to answer the question of whether or not we can even have such conversations, if at all — and only then should we start talking. Until then, I’m completely fine just talking about living here, in the US, in my diasporic community.


Amram Altzman is a student at List College.

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