Silent No Longer

More and more Jews outside Israel have ceased to understand what the government in Jerusalem stands for and where it is leading its nation and the whole Jewish people.

Several weeks ago, in Prague, I participated in a meeting of young Jewish leaders from all over the world. None were part of any political party, although we all belong to a well-established organization affiliated to the World Jewish Congress, and are all committed to the well-being of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The agenda was rich: discussions on how to fight anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the Jewish state, and on the Iranian threat and interfaith relations - to name only a few. It was heartening to see these bright and enthusiastic young people prepared to offer the best of themselves to worthy Jewish causes.

Naturally, one of the issues that came up was the "unilateral" declaration of Palestinian statehood expected in September at the United Nations. Many mainstream Jewish organizations were eager for us to tackle the issue, and so it was supposed to be one of the first items on the agenda. Except that most of the participants were not enthusiastic, to put it mildly. Not that we thought that the unilateral declaration is a good thing in itself. But we felt that what was being asked of us - because it was at the heart of the political debate in Israel as well as in the Jewish world - put at risk the cohesiveness of the whole gathering. For what was being demanded was to obey an Israeli injunction to lobby our respective national governments without debate. As if we were soldiers in a battle in which we had no say. And what's worse, soldiers in a unwinnable battle. The unease, however unspoken, was palpable.

And then, the most senior of us, a former high-ranking American Jewish official, and a hard-liner at that when it comes to Israel, spoke up. "Drop the issue," he said, "leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Israelis. You focus on the core, consensual issues of Jewish concern. Otherwise, we are doomed to split." A sigh of relief was perceptible.

What a strange phenomenon, I thought. There we were, a group of dedicated Zionist Jews, veterans of all the relevant battlegrounds of our time - Durban I and II, the Red Cross, Interpol and the UN Human Rights Council - now reluctant to embark on a campaign that had been classified by the Israeli government as its top diplomatic priority!

A week later, another gathering, in another European capital. Delegations from all over the EU came to Paris to mark the first anniversary of JCall, the European version of the American J Street. The hall was full of people very different from my colleagues in Prague. They included prominent intellectuals and other luminaries of Jewish civil society. The mood was bleak.

One after the other, the orators expressed their feeling of deep love for and commitment to the Jewish state, and at the same time, bewilderment in the face of the erratic, if not suicidal, behavior of its government. They talked about the growing isolation of Israel, the prospect of a third intifada that seemed inevitable considering the current stalemate of the so-called "peace process," the mounting wave of Arab protest - and yes, the rapidly approaching September vote. They complained about the sheep-like kowtowing of self-styled Jewish leadership in the Diaspora to the empty slogans of the current Israeli government. And they stated, once and again, what should be obvious: Being a Zionist does not necessarily mean being a Greater Israel activist. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the settlement frenzy is likely to bury the Zionist dream altogether.

In a way, the Paris event was the answer to the uneasiness we felt in Prague. The September unilateral declaration is not the real problem. The truth is that more and more Jews outside Israel have simply ceased to understand what on earth the government in Jerusalem stands for and where it is leading its nation, and with it, the whole Jewish people. This is not even a matter of left or right, but of plain logic: No country can "dwell alone" forever, not even North Korea. And Israel, "the only democracy in the Middle East," is not North Korea.

No country can survive in a hostile environment when it dooms itself to be a binational state. A binational state will eventually have to choose between equally unacceptable alternatives of apartheid or civil war. And no country can nurture a vibrant democracy at the same time that it is an occupying power. Democracy, after all, is about freedom and equality before the law.

Israeli brothers and sisters: Don't let yourselves be misled by the standing ovation that your prime minister enjoyed on Capitol Hill in May, for that was all about American politics. And don't get excited by the unflinching support of AIPAC, for that's all about Jewish American politics. Do listen to the mounting murmur of despair from the Diaspora, from the depths of the Jewish silent majority, which is less and less silent.

JCall was founded around an "appeal to reason." Isn't it about time to take heed of the voice of reason?

Claude Kandiyoti is a Brussels-based entrepreneur and a signatory of the JCall 2010 "Appeal to Reason."