Deservedly or Not, Israel Is Losing the Diaspora

Israeli is not as undemocratic or intolerant as we its citizens frequently make ourselves out to be. The problem is Israel likes to impress all the wrong people.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Thanksgiving dinner at the Rosenbergs: The turkey critiqued, the conversation moved onto Israel.
Thanksgiving dinner at the Rosenbergs: The turkey critiqued, the conversation moved onto Israel.Credit: AP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The conversation at a gathering of the extended Rosenberg family this past Thanksgiving moved rapidly, as it usually does, from catching up on the past year's news, a critique of the turkey and carrot pudding, on to deconstructing the mythic history of the first Thanksgiving.

Then, as no doubt happens in tens of thousands of Thanksgivings celebrated in Jewish households across America every year, the subject turned to Israel.

Like the great majority of American Jews, the people at the Rosenberg Thanksgiving are neither zealous Zionists, nor are they indifferent to Israel or their Jewish identity. They give money to Israeli causes and worry about friends and family in the wake of a terror attacks.

But they are unlikely to write angry emails to their congressperson, Jon Stewart or anyone else accused of failing to love and honor Israel unquestioningly, or to engage in angry exchanges with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Putin's Russia, not Jefferson's America

Being supportive of the Jewish state comes naturally to them. But they'd like Israel to fit smoothly into their world view, which not only values Jewish identity but freedom, democracy, tolerance and openness and human rights.

They understand Israel's need to defend itself. But they just as much want Israel to be the ever-ready peace partner.

Is Israel failing them?

That was certainly the feeling around the Thanksgiving table. Israel's supporters are still grappling with the 2,200 Palestinian deaths in the Gaza war, a number that leaves many feeling uncomfortable even after taking into account the storm of Hamas missiles Israel endured. The attacks of Israeli vigilantes – whether it was Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teenager beaten and burned to death in July, or the arson attack on the Jewish-Arab school this week – gives them the impression that Israel isn't a place of law and order but a jungle where Palestinians and Jews are in a uncontrolled war.

The nation-state law, however, even in its most carefully phrased, moderate version, reminds them of Putin's Russia, not Jefferson's America.

They simply cannot understand the logic of building and expanding settlements if Israel is serious about the creation of a Palestinian state. Nor can they countenance the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life in a country that is supposed to be the Jewish state for all Jews.

When Israel responds to Palestinian attacks by announcing more West Bank construction, it reminds them how much the settlements are a scarlet letter of its role in perpetuating the conflict.

Let the light shine in

In fact, Israel is not quite as dark a place as it seems. In many ways, Israel is more democratic than it has ever been.

Mizrahim – non-Ashkenazi Jews - are closing the socio-economic gap, as evidenced by the country getting its first-ever chief of staff of Moroccan origin. Israel is gay friendly.

Israel has done a remarkably - though by no means perfect - job of absorbing a polyglot of ethnic communities. Freedom House awards Israel excellent ratings of 1.5 for overall freedom, 2 for civil liberties and 1 for political rights (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the highest ratings). The startup phenomenon is not only a business story but a testament to Israel's social and intellectual dynamism.

American Jews don't fully appreciate the difficulties Israel faces as a small country in a hostile region. It is to Israel's credit that after close to seven decades, it has not succumbed to the worst excesses of intolerance of a country at war. Overtly racist parties in the vein of France's National Front have never fared well in Israel, even though our system of proportionally representation in the Knesset should have made it easy for them.

But paint it black

But Israel seems to go to great pains to portray itself as the opposite.

It's not just some of hysterical rantings of Israel's critics – many of them Israelis themselves – but the very same people who assume the mantle of being the Jewish state's chief defenders.

In this content, it's as much a surprise as it isn't that Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and leader of the Habayit Hayehudi Party, was named at the Rosenberg Thanksgiving dinner as the bad face of Israel.

Israel has its rogues gallery, starting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and working our way down to grandstanding Knesset members and ultra-nationalistic rabbis, but Bennett?

In fact, Bennett in many ways exemplifies Israel's problems, not just for Diaspora Jews but for that matter, for anyone who supports Israel as not just the Jewish state, but one that aspires to the same values as its Western allies.

His curriculum vitae shows Israel at its very best: Bennett is a veteran of an elite army unit; he is a high-tech entrepreneur, Orthodox but religiously moderate, and lives in a quiet Tel Aviv suburb rather than in a militant settlement.

But Bennett is also the leader of a party that represents the side of Israel that is intolerant, paranoid, angry and uncompromising.

The extent to which Bennett reflects his real views and how much is a politician talking the language of his core constituents is irrelevant.

What matters important is what Bennett says, not what he may be thinking. So when he uses the platform of The New York Times op-ed page to propose annexing large swathes of the West Bank ("I propose applying Israeli law in Area C, which is the part of the West Bank controlled by Israel under the Oslo agreement") or calls for turning east Jerusalem into a military zone ("Go in with Border Police forces, make arrests, create intelligence channels, stay there on a permanent basis, not just when there's a terror attack") his progressive credentials don't mean much.

Don't dismiss the Rosenbergs

It is easy to dismiss the kind of Jews gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week.

The most vocal elements of the Jewish community – the AIPAC activists and Orthodox Jews – don't express misgivings about the direction the Jewish state is headed.

If you want to be cynical, you could argue that it’s the most vocal elements Israel needs to worry about: the ones who lobby congress, turn up for Israel Day parades, often make the biggest financial contributions and show the deepest commitment to Zionism (short of actually living in Zion).

But the great mass of American Jews is a better barometer of what elites are thinking in the United States and Europe.

Orthodox Jews might be excited about the nation-state law, but the real decision-makers in Washington and Brussels – or for that matter Silicon Valley and Wall Street, because Israel needs business on its side as much as it needs governments – look askance at such things. They will support Israel for exactly the things that Israel's most zealous backers are either indifferent or hostile to, whether it is Startup Nation, Gay Tel Aviv or equality for all its citizens, including Arabs.

An American Jew who hasn't visited Israel in years, or a European Union diplomat, or a gentile high-tech investor may not seem to be our closest friends, but they are among our most valuable ones. We ignore them at our peril.

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