Preventing a Schism

The recent elections in both the United States and Israel have exposed a deep and potentially catastrophic schism between the world's two preeminent Jewish communities.

Mike Prashker
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Mike Prashker

The recent elections in both the United States and Israel have exposed a deep and potentially catastrophic schism between the world's two preeminent Jewish communities.

By voting disproportionately for their country's first African-American president, America's Jews maintained their traditional prominence in helping the U.S. overcome its racist past, part of its arduous journey to realize the vision of its founding fathers.

In contrast, Israel's 80-percent Jewish majority has just voted in unprecedented numbers for several overtly - even proudly - racist political parties, whose campaigns incited against Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens. The largest, Yisrael Beiteinu, will have 15 seats out of 120 Knesset seats. Led by the Hebrew- and Russian-speaking Avigdor Lieberman, the party campaigned under the slogan "No Citizenship without Loyalty" and the threatening boast that "Only Lieberman Understands Arabic." It advocates the systematic disenfranchisement of large numbers of law-abiding citizens.

The election was alarming in both its process and its results, with an unprecedented and grotesque competition between several parties to present the most inflammatory positions vis-a-vis Israel's largest minority; a lack of condemnation of the racist rhetoric by the three "establishment" parties, Kadima, Likud and Labor; an attempt to ban two prominent Arab parties from participating in the election (only prevented by the intervention of the Supreme Court); and the frightening fact that had the vote been decided by the results of high-school mock-elections around the country, Lieberman would be the incoming prime minister.

In truth, in Israel 2009, the "fault" of 20 percent of Israel's citizens, in the minds of far too many Jewish Israelis, lies not in their actions or opinions, but in the mere fact of their existence.

The rise of Lieberman and his party, which seems set to be a senior partner in the next government, may constitute a problem not just for an Obama administration that seems determined to play an active role in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, but also for many Jewish Americans, who look east and see that their brethren in Israel have consciously or otherwise distanced the country from the Jewish and democratic vision of its founding fathers. Under circumstances even harsher than those facing contemporary Israel, they drafted a Declaration of Independence that determined that the national homeland of the Jewish people would "ensure complete equality ... to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."

This is not the place for a lengthy analysis of how we Israelis have reached this sorry juncture in our democratic journey. Undoubtedly, a number of powerful and interconnected factors are involved. The fact is, however, that when it comes to core democratic values, American and Israeli Jews are headed in diametrically opposite directions. These elections have revealed Israeli democracy as dangerously hollow - an easily manipulated latticework of structures, mechanisms and procedures lacking the normative and cultural foundations that are the bedrock of any substantive and sustainable democracy.

The likely consequences of this democratic schism for the prospects of nurturing meaningful Jewish partnership and, indeed, for both communities individually, are harsh.

Under the circumstances, American Jews seem to have, both individually and communally, a range of options - from unmitigated disgust, disavowal and disengagement, through denial, to well-meaning, knee-jerk defense. For obvious reasons, none of these will do anything to help fix the problems, thereby compounding them.

Like it or not, such responses will ultimately prove as damaging to American Jewry and the Jewish people as to Israeli society. An Israel that fails to overcome its democratic demons can never be a strong and sustainable national home for the Jewish people. If, as now seems a distinct possibility, Israel continues to drift away from its loose democratic moorings on a rising xenophobic tide, there will be no consolation for our shattered dream and nowhere to hide from the grim ramifications for all Jews, everywhere.

Optimally, American Jewry's overwhelming response will be one of determined, passionate and empathetic engagement. Key steps should include:

? Getting educated on the issues: Too few American Jews have sophisticated appreciation of the facts, complexities and challenges. They need to be availed of the comprehensive empirical data that exists on all the key issues, such as the large educational, economic, housing and employment gaps facing Israel's Arab citizens.

? Tough love - as befits family: Jewish Israelis, be they elected leaders, opinion-formers or family, need to hear that prejudice and discrimination are wrong, unacceptable and self-defeating. Israel's vulnerable democracy cannot be allowed to fail just because Diaspora Jews who care keep quiet - for fear of "rocking the boat."

? Empathy: Jewish Israelis need to know that their uniquely tough circumstances are genuinely appreciated. At the same time, Israel's Arab citizens urgently deserve recognition of their precarious situation and encouragement to stay the democratic course to full civic equality.

? Social philanthropy: Despite these very tough economic times, sophisticated and leveraged philanthropic investments in systematic educational, economic, employment, welfare, advocacy and other democracy-strengthening and society-building initiatives, in partnership with effective Israeli NGOs, philanthropic and government agencies, remain essential.

At its best and most effective - there is no contradiction - the response of American Jewry will be based on deeply held Jewish, Zionist and democratic values. It will be driven by a strong commitment to Jewish peoplehood and confidence in the uncompromising inclusive vision of Israel's founders. It will also be grounded in hard-nosed pragmatism and self-interest and energized by America's new found confidence in the unrivaled might of democracy and the power of hope.

Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.



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