American Jewish Leaders Fiddle While Israeli Democracy Burns

Jews fight for freedom, equality and minority rights in America but exempt themselves from the same battle in Israel.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014.
Members of far right organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, IsraelCredit: Ofer Vaknin
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Many American Jewish organizations have full-fledged offices in Israel, while others employ part-time representatives. Almost all have lookouts on the Israeli scene and contacts in high places in the Israeli government, not to mention numerous relatives and close personal friends.

So American Jewish leaders don’t need author David Grossman to realize that “nationalism, fanaticism and racism have erupted all at once”, imposing a “dictatorship of fear” in the public arena.

And they didn’t have to wait for Professor Zeev Sternhell to opine that Israel 2014 is beginning to look like France, 1940, that “Israeli democracy reached a new low point during the recent war” or that Israel’s universal values “are constantly being eroded.”

And they should find it superfluous to have someone describe the “post-democratic camp” that B Michael wrote about, which “wants to break free of the foibles of democracy, sees civil rights as a nuisance and regards racism as a welcome trait.”

Because by virtue of their strong interest and deep immersion in Israeli life, presumably, American Jewish leaders must be fully aware of the evil winds blowing in the Israeli public arena; of the rising intolerance, racism and xenophobia; of the efforts inside and outside the Knesset to stifle free speech and to inhibit freedom of the press; of the spreading use of violence and intimidation to instill fear among those who would stray from the government-inspired right wing line; of the ongoing delegitimization of liberal values and human rights and the organizations that safeguard them; of the increasingly vile and abusive language used in the public sphere and on social media against divergent views; of the growing official and unofficial intolerance and incitement directed at Israel’s Arab minority.

But then the question must be asked: If they know all of this, why are they staying so silent? Why are they not speaking out? Why are these representatives of America’s Jewish millions not standing up for the values of tolerance, pluralism and democratic freedoms that that they hold so dear when it comes to their own lives in America? Why do they enlist in the defense of Jews everywhere around the globe - except those who live in their dear beloved Israel?

Just imagine the outcry from American Jewish leaders if hundreds of white supremacist Christian protesters came to a wedding of a mixed couple somewhere in the U.S. to take part in a court-sponsored demonstration in which the most popular chant was “Death to the Jews”. Try to conjure the howls of protests that would accompany a public call by a senior U.S. cabinet member for a blanket boycott of Muslim shop-owners who closed their shops in solidarity with the people of Iraq during the Gulf Wars. Think of the torrents of protest letters that would be published if an American university dared to reprimand a professor who expressed sympathy not only for Palestinian losses during the recent Gaza fighting, but for Jewish ones as well. Visualize the mass sit-ins that would be organized in front of office whose owners dared to fire Jews because they expressed support for Israel on their private Facebook pages. Envision the dramatic calls for tougher police action against roving gangs of hooligans who go Jew-hunting in the streets of lower Manhattan - or Istanbul or Djakarta, if you prefer - whenever another Jew was convicted of a serious crime. Think of the hunger strikes and days of mourning that would be declared if Congress tried to legislate the supremacy of Christianity, the diminishment of minority rights, the enfeeblement of the Supreme Court.

American Jews would go nuts, and rightly so.

Yet all of these and other phenomena that have developed gradually in recent years - and at an alarming pace since the start of Operation Protective Edge - have been met with a wall of silence by most American Jewish organizations. There have been no protests, no emergency summits, no call to arms, not even a request for more information or further investigation. Nothing but the sounds of silence.

There are many explanations for this muteness, ranging from the reasonable to the absurd to the truly disturbing. It could be, though it’s highly unlikely, that American Jewish organizations are thoroughly engaged in defending Israel against its external foes now and are simply awaiting the end of the war in order to let loose on its internal demons. Perhaps they take the word of Israeli government ministers, on this as in all other matters, who claim that all this talk of deteriorating democracy is just trumped up leftist hysteria amplified by the liberal MSM. Possibly, American Jewish leaders realize that something wicked this way comes, but are afraid to speak out for fear that they themselves will be criticized and cut off from the friends in high places and ultimately described as “fair-weather friends”, at best, or as outright traitors, at worst, as Israeli dissenters are. Maybe they think that in the shadow of all the meshugas in the Middle East, Israel’s transgressions are minor.

And some American Jewish leaders might actually agree with many of Israel’s current political leaders and citizens who have given up on a liberal and multicultural Western-style Israel and now support an ethno-centric pseudo-democratic garrison state instead. Some might believe, like too many Israelis, that left wing and liberal critics of Israel should indeed be denounced, censured and ostracized. After all, didn’t the Conference of Presidents recently reject the membership application of J-Street for those exact same reasons?

American Jewish leaders know how to identify crimes of hate and prejudice from a million miles away, but for some reasons they go deaf, blind and mute when it comes to the same offences in Israel. They have gotten so used to playing Israel’s fiddle, that they can’t bring themselves to shout, “Fire!” when Israeli democracy is burning down.

But these explanations do not provide an excuse. The American Jewish community knows from its head to its kishkes what it is like to live as a religious minority. It has stood at the forefront of all the good fights for freedom and equality and against oppression and discrimination in America for over a hundred years, and it has done so both as a matter of Jewish justice as well as self-preservation. On this matter, American Jews cannot hide behind their staple “we don’t intervene because we don’t live there” routine. When it comes to the preservation of freedom and the entrenchment of equality and tolerance, the traditional roles between Israel and the greatest Diaspora community are actually reversed: it is the American Jewish community which must be a light unto Zion.

American Jews cannot ignore this battle or shirk away from it: in this war, there will be no exemptions for college students or conscientious objectors. They must fight on behalf of their Israeli brothers and sisters, but also for themselves. If they don’t speak up soon, they could wake up one day to an Israel that even its most ardent supporters will find hard to defend.

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