Progressive Jews should not give up on Israel
The prevailing feeling among progressive Jews is that Israel has a government not even a Jewish mother could love.
Daniel Sieradski's resume reads like a love poem to the world of Jewish activism. Sieradski, 32, is the creator of several influential Jewish websites and digital platforms, including JewSchool.com, and his expertise is coveted by publications and nonprofit organizations alike. Additionally, Sieradski has been an extremely visible advocate for progressive Israeli and Jewish causes as well as an outspoken watchdog against anti-Semitism. And so, when he recently announced to his nearly 2,400 followers on Twitter that he would no longer be commenting publicly about Israel, some were taken aback.
"I've decided that after 10 years of fighting for a progressive Israeli course correction, that our efforts are futile," he wrote in June. "I officially give up. As the Jewish nation proceeds to march off a cliff, I will now go back to caring about everything else I cared about before Israel."
Considering Sieradski's large following and his pioneer status, one might expect his declaration to precipitate a similar wave of emotional and ideological disengagement from Israel by other young, like-minded American Jews.
His sentiments reflect more than the simple waning of interest among young and uncommitted Jewish Americans; it is the apostasy of believers who deeply supported Israel. We're talking about American Jewish Zionists who revile Hamas and Hezbollah, fear for Israel's safety in the face of Iran's nuclear program, and pray for Israel's long-term strength and viability as a Jewish and democratic state.
It's no surprise that progressives are disillusioned. The continuing expansion of settlements and the Boycott Law are manifestations of trends in Israel that make it increasingly difficult for many of us to speak in its favor in public forums abroad, on college campuses, even at kitchen tables.
As a writer on these themes, I come across the daily torrent of anti-Israel rhetoric, written by people whose perspectives I loathe - and yet, I find myself agreeing more and more with what's being said about Israel's ruling coalition. The prevailing feeling among progressive Jews is that Israel has a government not even a Jewish mother could love and that the country's democratic values are gradually being eroded from within.
Within a minute of meeting with Sieradski, he cites a report released in June by Repair the World, a trans-denominational Jewish nonprofit, focused on volunteerism and social activism. The report describes how "millennials" - the organization's label for Jewish Americans ages 18-35 - recently ranked "Israel/Middle East peace" 10th on a list of social action causes with which they identify.
"For millennials, Israel is less important than animal rights and the environment," Sieradski comments.
Whether this conclusion is alarming or obvious, it's possible that a potential paradigm for how to connect both young Diaspora Jews and lost progressives to Israel is concealed in this disquieting data. For the many whose priorities have shifted away from Israel, now is the time to focus on specific issues. The alternatives - either to tune out or relinquish the vision of a better future for Israel - will only hasten the complete corruption of the values the country needs to maintain its allies.
There are countless Israeli organizations whose work embodies liberal values, but are imperiled by the ugly political climate in Israel today. There are, for example, widely acclaimed (and maligned ) human-rights and coexistence groups, as well as lesser-known organizations working with asylum-seeking African refugees. Such organizations need support more than Israel needs trees.
For issues that captivate a younger generation, Israel's eminence in fields like technology and medicine are well known, but there is also groundbreaking work being done by Israeli ecologists, who are dreaming up desperately needed sustainability initiatives. Creating global partnerships for this work links Israel to both the world and the future.
For those less engrossed by politics, Israel's cultural exports represent the creative expression of an open society. Israeli musicians and dancers tour the globe, attracting many admirers. The works of Israeli artists hang in galleries and museums in the world's major cultural centers. Additionally, there may not be better ambassadors for the soul of Israel than writers like Amos Oz, Etgar Keret and David Grossman - cherished figures in numerous literary communities abroad.
Most important, there is a burgeoning of political groups in Israel building momentum through salons and demonstrations, groups that may, despite a political climate that is increasingly hostile to them, someday emerge as part of a powerful new Zionist left. Behind these groups are tens of thousands of Israelis who share a progressive vision for their country. They desperately need allies abroad who believe in their goals, and can help define and advance their movement.
The need for a democratic counterweight in Israel has never been more dire. We have it in our power - and it is our responsibility - to help strengthen Israeli democracy and ensure its survival. This work cannot be done without its Sieradskis here in America and across the Diaspora. And without concentrated pushback, the madness leading Israel off its rational course will only deepen.
Adam Chandler is a writer who lives in New York. He is currently working on a book about the Second Lebanon War.
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