Strenger Than Fiction Jewish Liberals From All Nations, Unite

Diaspora Jews around the world are realizing the time has come to reject the right’s dictate that being pro-Israel means that you need to support the policies of Israeli governments, no matter what they do.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the onset of the Second Intifada have in stages swung the pendulum of Israeli politics to the right to the current government that includes Avigdor Lieberman - one of the most anti-democratic ministers Israel has ever had, who is moving Israel ever closer to the brink of total international isolation - and the Shas Party whose main impact is to push construction in East Jerusalem and the settlements.

This has been reflected in an amazing distortion in the Jewish voice from the Diaspora, primarily the U.S., in the last decade. Judging from the media presence, you might think that most Jews are right-leaning and support Israel’s settlement policy and foot-dragging over ending the occupation. But this has never been true: most Diaspora Jews, including most of American Jewry, is committed to liberalism.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in Geneva on April 20, 2009.Credit: AP

Now the pendulum is swinging back. Diaspora Jews around the world are beginning to realize that the time has come to reject the right’s dictate that being pro-Israel means that you need to support the policies of Israeli governments, no matter what they do; that the Jewish right represents a small minority of the Jewish people. Caring about friends and family doesn’t mean that we do not criticize them, when we believe that they are harming themselves. In caring for somebody’s wellbeing, we are often required to make clear that they are going the wrong way. Hence Liberal Jews in the Diaspora firmly stand by Israel while trenchantly criticizing the occupation and settlements.

This week a delegation of J Street representatives visited Israel. They were hosted by President Shimon Peres, and they heard from central Israeli politicians like Labor MK Matan Vilnai and from opposition leader Tzipi Livni that ending the occupation is Israel’s most urgent task to safeguard it as the democratic state of the Jewish people. The Netanyahu government’s attempt to brand J Street as outside the legitimate Jewish discourse has failed, and finally, after refusing to attend J Street’s first convention, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren met them a few weeks ago.

The movement initiated by J Street is now joined by the European JCall, which includes leading Jewish intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, and which will present its message to the European Parliament today. Their name is short for the Jewish European Call to Reason. This development is doubly important: first, because it gives a voice to the majority of European Jews, who, while caring for Israel, are liberal in orientation. Second: because its leaders are severely critical of Europe’s anti-Israeli left, as shown in Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times and Alain Finkielkraut’s The Defeat of Reason.

There are those on the European (and sometimes on the American) left that have moved into a simplistic, black-and-white worldview governed by what I call SLES, short for "Standard Left Explanatory System." SLES is a remainder of the guilt that many Europeans feel about their colonial past. Its algorithm is very simple: always support the underdog, particularly if non-Western. If the underdog behaves immorally (9/11; 7/7; Hamas hiding weaponry and fighters in civilian buildings), always accuse the West, and preferably Jews, for having pushed them to do this. Never demand non-Western groups to take responsibility for their actions, but instead masochistically look for ways to make the West responsible.

The new Jewish Liberal voice refuses to give in to the pressures of the Jewish right to support Israel’s actions when if they are wrong-headed, immoral and destructive. It is critical of Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinians territories after 43 years, and condemns the ongoing settlement construction.

At the same time it refuses, adamantly, to cave in to the masochistic tendency of SLES to look for Western culprits only, and systematically exposes anti-Semitic undercurrents in some of the anti-Israeli rhetoric. It strongly supports Palestinians’ right to a state of their own in which they can live in dignity and freedom, but it doesn’t let them off the hook for their dreadful mistakes, starting with the rejection of the UN partition agreement in 1947 and ending with electing the explicitly anti-Semitic Hamas into power in 2005.

It firmly believes that respecting Palestinians means to hold them responsible for their actions and consistently unmasks the tendency of the Arab world to accuse Israel of its own shortcomings and backwardness; and it never loses sight of the dangers in radical Islam, while seeking cooperation with moderate and progressive Arabs and Muslims.

The new Jewish Liberals are characterized by what philosopher Susan Neiman, in a wonderful book has called Moral Clarity: a combination of moral principles that are not to be compromised combined with insistence that reason rather than religious belief or dogmatic ideology must be the guide in making up our minds on questions of fact.

I predict the new Jewish liberal voice will become the predominant presence in Jewish discourse and politics of the Diaspora. Having suffered from irrational and evil persecution, prejudice and hatred, we Jews know how important the principles of Liberalism are, and it is time for us to apply them everywhere, and of course, first and foremost, in Israel.

It is now time for Israel’s liberals, who all but disappeared politically and have left public space except for a few enclaves to the right, to pick up the lead of the Diaspora, to make our voices forcefully heard. While being intransigent in opposing Israel’s occupation, the expansion of settlement and the disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs, we must not fall into the trap of SLES. We must make clear to the electorate, that we do not just see Palestinians as victims, but as partners to be held responsible for their actions.

We must no longer let the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, whose worldview is illiberal, be the face of our country to the world. While holding the memory of the Holocaust sacred, we must refuse its politicization by Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu. While not blinding ourselves to the dangers of Islamic radicalism and Iran’s striving for hegemony, we must reject the fear-mongering of the right that has no positive message and no vision for Israel’s future.

Netanyahu has said to his Likud Party that they are supposed to be liberal and democratic. We must hold him to his word and demand that he drop his illiberal coalition partners, and form a government truly committed to liberal principles, with Kadima and Labor as his main partners. And we must demand of the Labor party to finally live up to its values, and pressure Netanyahu to move Israel towards moral clarity that is at the core of the Jewish Liberal vision.



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