In June last year, Peter Beinart published an article in the New York Review of Books that created quite a storm by pointing out the deep estrangement between the young generation of American Jews and Israel. A year later, it is time to take stock.
Unfortunately, the situation has only grown a lot worse. In my travels to Europe I speak to predominantly Jewish audiences, but also to non-Jews who care deeply about Israel. They voice their pain and anguish openly: They want to understand what has happened to Israel. They desperately want to stand by it, but they are, increasingly, at a loss of knowing how to do so.
Their questions are simple. They know that Israel is located in one of the world's most difficult neighborhoods; they have no illusions about the Iranian regime or Hezbollah; and they know the Hamas charter. But they don't understand how any of this is connected with Israel's settlement policies, the dispossession of Palestinian property in Jerusalem, and the utterly racist talk about the 'Judaization' of Jerusalem. They feel that they no longer have arguments, even words, to defend Israel.
Israel has never had a government that so blatantly violates the core values of liberal democracy. Never has a Knesset passed laws that are as manifestly racist as the current one. Israel has had foreign ministers who were unworldly and didn't know English; but it has never had a foreign minister whose only goal is to pander to his right-wing constituency by flaunting his disdain for international law and the idea of human rights with such relish.
Moreover, there has never been a government so totally oblivious of its relation to world Jewry. It passes laws that increase the Orthodox establishment's stranglehold on religious affairs and personal life - completely disregarding that 85 percent of world Jewry are not Orthodox - and simply dismissing their Jewish identities and their institutions. As a result, this majority of world Jewry feels Israel couldn't care less about its values and identity.
Israel's Orthodox establishment claims that by monopolizing conversion to Judaism and the laws of marriage, they are preventing a rift in the Jewish people. The exact opposite is true: It is Israel's turn toward racism that extends not only toward its Arab citizens, but toward Ethiopian youth not accepted into schools in Petah Tikva, toward Sephardic girls not allowed to study in Haredi schools in Immanuel, that most Jews in the world cannot stand for. It is the unholy coalition between nationalism and Orthodoxy that is tearing the Jewish people apart.
The overwhelming majority of American and European Jews are deeply committed to Universalist values, and have been so for most of their existence. This commitment is not a fad or an attempt to be fashionable and politically correct. It is the deeply felt conclusion the majority of world Jewry draws from Jewish history: After all that has happened to us, we Jews must never, ever allow violation of universal human rights.
This is why Jews in the U.S. have been central in the Civil Rights movement; this is why Jews in Europe will never forget that only Universalist liberals stood by Alfred Dreyfus in 1890s France. For most Jews of the world, it is simply unfathomable: How can we, who have suffered from racial and religious discrimination, use language and hold views that - as Israel Prize laureate and historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell argued - were last held in the Western world by the Franco regime?
For most of world Jewry, the idea of Yiddishkeit in the second half of the 20th century meant that Jews must never compromise on the equality of human beings before the law and the inviolability of their rights. So how can they stand by a state that continues to pay rabbis who argue that Jewish life has a sanctity that doesn't extend to gentiles, and that it is forbidden to rent property to Arabs?
In moments of despair, I try to remember that Israel's move to the right is driven by fear and confusion, ruthlessly fanned by politicians whose hold on power depends on the panic of Israel's citizens. I feel it can't be true that the country that was supposed not only to be the homeland of the Jews, but a moral beacon, is descending into such darkness. I try to remember that such times of darkness do not reflect on the human quality of a whole nation; that countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal emerged from dark times into the free world; that even though the winds of right-wing nationalism are sweeping over Israel, it is still a democracy.
Sometimes, along with the majority of Jews committed to liberal and Universalist values, I feel as if I were simply in a bad dream; that when I wake up, Herzl's vision of a Jewish state committed to the core values of liberalism will be the reality.
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