I have just returned from a short trip to North America where I met with local leaders, activists and rabbis with the goal of returning Israel to the forefront of Jewish consciousness in the Diaspora.

To put it mildly, I was greeted with more than an attentive ear.

Although many Jewish communities host Israel-focused events, a common theme emerges dominant – and when you connect the dots, it’s not always pretty. If you listen carefully, an underlying tone pervades the conversations and public discourse about Israel and the Jewish future.

In many ways, the atmosphere and flavor of the discussion shapes our consciousness more than the facts themselves – and we need to change the tone fast.

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Florida for an evening honoring Gilad Schalit, who was yet to be released. As an American-born IDF soldier who served in Gaza, I had plenty of thoughts to share.

While I was speaking before the parents and student body of the school, I asked what Israel-related events they had hosted that year in the school.

One by one, the students listed the “Israel” days on their school calendar – a night of solidarity for Schalit, a day of environmental consciousness responding to the devastating Carmel forest fire, an evening honoring victims of terror with a mother whose son was murdered, and a ceremony featuring a moving talk from a Holocaust survivor.

I was initially thrilled to hear the school made such a concerted effort to engage the students and parents with programming focused on Israel, connecting to the atmosphere – the situation and to all that was happening in the country.

However, after some thought, my excitement dissipated. I realized that although those young Jewish students connected to Israel in an array of wellplanned and well-executed events, their programming revolved around a kidnapped soldier, a catastrophic forest fire, terrorism and the Holocaust. For adults, the situation isn’t much better. The vast majority of Israel-oriented events are fund-raisers for one worthy cause or another.

Imagine the underlying message conveyed to all these lovers of the Jewish state. Israel is a poor and tragic country – wanna make aliya? In 2013, if the primary connection people have to Israel is centered around tragedies and fund-raisers, we will lose them. Although past generations rallied after tragedies and crises often launched them into action, our generation needs something different.

We must present Israel as it is: the greatest Jewish enterprise in 2,000 years.

The next generation growing up in both Israel and the Diaspora are wholeheartedly different than their parents. Anyone born after 1973 grew with up with a totally different Israel. They didn’t experience the resurrection of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust. The miracle of the Six Day War and the liberation of Jerusalem weren’t witnessed, but studied in history books. The daring and heroic rescue of Operation Entebbe play very little in shaping the connection people have to Israel today. Even worse, the pride of the Six Day War in the ’70s has become a source of insecurity and political defensiveness in the 2000s.

For well over 20 years, Israel has been shrouded in negativity. For us to keep the next generation engaged and in love with Israel, we have to combat the negativity with positivity and meaning. In Israel, something similar is happening. Without even realizing it, the public discourse is destroying the morale of the country. This Sunday, the new recruits to the IDF made their way to the enlistment base.

For more than two years, the number of potential recruits opting out of military service has been growing, while the number of soldiers enrolling in combat units is dropping.

In March 2011, over 80 percent of recruits with suitable profiles enlisted in combat units. This August, it’s hovering around 70%. The motivation has dropped dangerously and in only less than three years! What happened? One of the hottest topics in the Jewish world today is the controversy around IDF service for all. “Equalizing the burden” is the catchphrase in Israel. In the spirit of full disclosure, my father served in the IDF, today I serve as a platoon sergeant in an infantry unit, and I am educating my children to serve our country as well. With that said, I am categorically opposed to the “equalizing the burden” conversation.

It’s draining the passion out of our national collective consciousness. The tone of the discourse, encapsulated in the unfortunate term, has created a national negative disposition. Instead of recruits and soldiers feeling pride, honor and respect, they feel abused and taken advantage of.

Serving in the first sovereign Jewish army since the Maccabees is not a burden. It’s an honor and a privilege.

The discussion about serving in the IDF should touch on the essence of service, and not the implication that some of us are freiers (suckers).

This is an excerpt from my personal journal when I was on reserve duty two months ago: I’m sitting at the edge of a cliff wearing an IDF uniform that I haven’t changed in days, in the blasting heat of the Negev desert overlooking the Egyptian border. I’m in miluim (reserves) and I’ve never been happier.

Throughout all of our history, the Jewish people served alongside each other in battle. There is no precedent for a section of society to stay behind.

Not one. Moses, the greatest of all prophets and rabbis, went out to war with the Jewish people, as did Joshua.

All throughout Tanach, spiritual giants like David and Josiah went out to battle. The Maccabees were priests who served in the Holy Temple, but they picked up arms and defended Jewish freedom. The greatest sage and Torah scholar, Rabbi Akiva, and his students led by Bar Kochba, went to war against imperialist Rome. Why should now be any different? We face incredible challenges inside Israel and out. We should confront them with our greatest gift – an authentic Jewish heritage. Our Jewish values, identity and wisdom should permeate every public discourse.

Judaism is a life force, not merely a religion, and we need to infuse it into every Israel-oriented conversation.

We have the power to shape the consciousness of our people by reframing the conversation. As the People of the Book, it is our words that will rebuild morale and empower our generation.

When we speak about Israel and burning societal issues, host Israel events in our communities or even fund-raise for Israel, our conversations should reach into the treasures and wisdom of Jewish history. It will strengthen our identity and commitment, and infuse every Israeli and every lover of Israel with a sense of Jewish destiny and a higher calling.

We must present Israel as it is: the greatest Jewish enterprise in 2,000 years.

The author is a filmmaker, journalist and educator. He is the deputy director of the World Mizrachi Movement.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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