U.S. Jews Need a New Relationship With Israel

Peter Beinart's remarks at Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart addresses the Israel Conference for Peace, November 12, 2015.
Peter Beinart addresses the Israel Conference for Peace, November 12, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’m not an Israeli and I don’t know what it’s like to live here now. I don’t know what it’s like to wonder whether the next stabbing will take place on your block. I don’t know what it’s like to have ISIS to the north and Hamas to the south. I don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded by millions of people who wish your country did not exist.

I’m an American Jew, and tonight I will fly back from this place to my safe and privileged life. I’m the citizen of country that, faced with security threats far less grave than your own, put its Japanese citizens in internment camps during World War II, tortured detainees in secret prisons under George W. Bush, and last month bombed the only hospital in one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, killing everyone inside.

So I claim no intimate knowledge or moral authority.

I’m here to say only one thing: That we, as American Jews, need a different relationship with you. A relationship built on the values of the civil rights movement and Mechaat Tzedek Hevrati. A relationship built on the values of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Not a relationship built on the values of Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu.

As a teenager, I became a Zionist when I read about Anatoly Sharansky, who after nine years in a Soviet gulag walked onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport as a free man. I became a Zionist when I read about the airplanes Israel sent to Ethiopia to rescue that country’s impoverished, terrorized Jews, and return them to be with the people from whom they had been estranged since the days when the Temple stood.

But I also became a Zionist because when Sharansky and those Ethiopian Jews landed here, they landed in a democracy. I became a Zionist because in 1948, when the stench of Jewish death still hung over Europe, when Israel was fighting a war for its very survival and fielding a rag-tag army composed in significant measure of people with numbers tattooed on their arms, this country’s founders wrote a declaration of independence that promised “complete equality of social and political rightsirrespective of race, religion or sex.”

That’s what inspires me about Israel. And it’s those same ideals that make me proud of my Jewish community in the United States. I’m proud that although Jews were only two percent of America’s population, we comprised one-third of the white Americans who went to Mississippi to fight for civil rights in the great Freedom Summer of 1964. I’m proud that the two greatest icons of the modern American feminist movement—Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem—were both Jews. I’m proud that Frank Kameny, sometimes called the Martin Luther King of the American gay rights movement, was a Jew. I’m proud that American Jews voted for Barack Obama—a black man with a Muslim name—at almost twice the rate of other whites.

But too often, when we—the two largest Jewish communities in the world—interact, we don’t champion these democratic values; we desecrate them. We meet on Taglit-Birthright trips carefully designed to insure that young American Jews experience Israel without ever interacting with the fifty percent of the people under Israeli control who are Palestinian. We meet when Benjamin Netanyahu goes to AIPAC’s annual conference, and joins its leaders in boasting about Israeli democracy, even as they work together to deepen an occupation that holds millions of Palestinians as non-citizens, without free movement, under military law. We meet when Miami bingo tycoon Irving Moscowitz goes to Sheikh Jarrah to visit the remains of the Palestinian homes he has paid to tear down.

Too often, the people who link our two communities are machers and billionaires and bigots. And those of us for whom being Jewish means knowing the heart of the stranger because we remember that were once strangers too--as it says 36 times in the Torah—we remain disconnected. We wage our lonely, often frustrating, national struggles without the comfort and inspiration we could draw from each other.

I’m tired of meeting young American Jews who are struggling for universal health care or immigrant rights or environmental justice but want nothing to do with Israel because the only Israeli face they see is Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

They need to see your face. They need you to call them to a relationship with Israel built not on blind loyalty but on loving struggle.

Imagine if Israeli Jews like you were to say this to your cousins across the Atlantic.

“Every year tens if not hundreds of thousands of American Jews come here with your synagogues and youth groups and extended families. You stay in nice hotels like these. You hike in the Galil. You pray at the Kotel. And that’s fine, because this is a beautiful and wonderful place. But it’s also a place that is being corrupted by its control over millions of fellow human beings who for almost half a century have lived without basic rights.

“We, as Israeli Jews struggling, against powerful adversaries, to save our democracy - we ask you to join us. Extend your trips for a day or two. Come with us to document what happens at checkpoints. Come with us to march nonviolently in Nabi Saleh, where Palestinians every week protest the confiscation of their land. Come with us to protect Palestinians threatened by settler violence during the olive harvest.

“Come see the ugliness that exists alongside Israel’s beauty. And then go back to Denver and Milwaukee and Baltimore and tell your friends and family what you have seen here. Tell them that your allegiance, as American Jews, should not be to Benjamin Netanyahu. It should be to the Israeli declaration of independence whose principles he tramples. Tell your government, which writes Netanyahu endless blank checks, to support Israel’s democracy, not its occupation. Help us fulfill Rabbi’s Heschel’s dream of “making this a state worth waiting 2,000 years for.”

If you call us, some of us will answer. We will answer because deep down we know that we are implicated in what happens here. We are implicated because Israel is the great test of Jewish power. It’s the test of whether the Jewish ethical tradition, forged in powerlessness, can inform the actions of a Jewish state. If Israel fails that test—if the occupation becomes permanent, if Israeli democracy dies—it won’t matter that we live ten thousand miles from here. It will be stain upon our lives.

When I arrive in New York tomorrow morning, if I can stay awake, I will daven with my nine-year old son at his school. We will pray for Medinat Israel, raishit tsmichat geulatainu.

Call us to be part of that work of redemption, the work of helping Israel fulfill its declaration of independence’s promise to pursue “freedom, justice and peace, as envisaged by the Hebrew Prophets.” Call us. And make us partners in the great Jewish struggle of our time.

Thank you.

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