Opinion

This Is the Only Effective Way to Push Back Against Netanyahu's Israel

Forget lobbying to cut non-existent U.S. 'economic aid,' getting arrested outside Birthright, sending angry tweets. If you actually want change, this is what to do

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC in Washington via satellite feed from Israel. Washington D.C. March 26, 2019
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

For all the wailing and teeth-gnashing of liberal Diaspora Jews in the wake of Benjamin Netanyahu’s win, you would have thought they actually believed Benny Gantz had a sporting-chance of winning this election. Or that if he had, a solution for the ongoing injustice of the occupation would have been just around the corner.

To hear some of the reactions in recent days (and to be fair it wasn’t just overseas, a few Israeli leftists pronouncing the death of democracy contributed their share), you would think that Gantz, whose party didn’t even present a diplomatic plan before the election, had some special secret recipe that had eluded previous PMs Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who both tried and failed to reach a deal with the Palestinians.

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It’s not that I’m in any way blasé about the damage Netanyahu has wrought in his past decade in office, and - with the Trump administration’s help - will continue to do in the coming years. But there’s simply something so blinkered about the tone coming from normally sensible American Jews over the last week.

As if there is actually something they can actually do about it.

Take for example their latest wheeze of supporting a half-baked tweet of a freshman congresswoman about the possibility of cutting "economic aid" to Israel, and another bill by a Democratic congresswoman to prohibit U.S. aid being used to detain Palestinian children in the West Bank.

It's a pity for that righteous activism that the U.S. phased out economic aid a decade ago, and more than three-quarters of the $3.8 billion Israel gets today, under an agreement signed by a Democrat president called Barack Obama, are essentially subsidies to American industry that ensure Israel continues buying expensive planes that have little to do with the occupation.

Indeed, you might have thought from those outrage levels that under the pre-Trump administration, Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East were on the brink of peace.

That Obama had not wasted America’s credibility by doing nothing to try and stop the mass-slaughter of half a million Syrians. That he hadn't given Egypt’s military dictatorship carte blanche to mow down civilian protestors, and the Saudis and Emiratis to bomb Yemeni civilians. And despite that, the Netanyahu government wasn’t alone among U.S. allies in the region in wishing Obama good riddance once he left the White House.

I’m not going to argue that Trump isn't even worse, enabling and encouraging our worst tendencies. But the belief among liberal American Jews that somehow the next Democratic administration, assuming it will win back the presidency in the foreseeable future, will do a better job, is breathtakingly arrogant.

And then there’s the vogue among the younger generation of U.S. Jewish activists to force organizations and federations and Birthright tour-operators to "acknowledge the occupation." Not that I’m against it in principle. Of course I’m for it. But who do they think needs convincing?

Do they actually believe that intelligent liberal American Jews who read the New York Times and Haaretz don’t know that Israel is an occupying power controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians who didn’t have the right to vote in last week’s elections?

It would be great if every AIPAC and ADL convention had a special session on the iniquities of the occupation, and every Birthright tour included a tour of divided Hebron with Breaking the Silence guides. But it would change absolutely nothing on the ground.

If you want to change things, first recognize the fact that change will only come from people who actually live here. There are things you can do to try and change Netanyahu’s Israel but those are things which happen in Israel and the occupied territories. Not in Washington, New York or Miami.

The first thing you can do to help make a change is support initiatives which improve the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Joint List MKs Dov Khenin, left, and Ayman Odeh, center, in anti-violence and pro-coexistence demonstration in Tel Aviv, Oct. 9, 2015. The placards in read, "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies."
Amir Cohen/Reuters

And thankfully, there are already a large number of programs supported by Diaspora Jews for doing that, but there need to be more. Because change won’t come to Israel without meaningful Jewish-Arab cooperation and a pushback against the right-wing’s delegimization of Israeli-Arab votes and voices. Unless Arab citizens feel they have a stake and are legitimate, equal citizens, turnout there won’t match that in the Jewish community and a center-left government will never return to office.

The second thing American Jews can do is engage with the Haredim. Not with the hidebound Haredi rabbis and corrupt politicians of Shas and United Torah Judaism, but with ordinary young Haredi men and women who are eager for an opportunity to make up for their lack of any relevant education to enter the workplace. Every Israeli government (yes, also the left-wing ones) have colluded with the rabbis to fund a segregated Haredi school system which denies children basic knowledge

There are few more pressing issues today in the Jewish world than providing remedial and vocational training for the hundreds of thousands of Haredim who have been deprived of essential skills by their communities and have been forsaken by the government.

Not that this should be the main reason for doing so, but in the long-term, helping young Haredi families make a decent living and ending their dependency of government benefits is also the only hope to ending the blanket support of all ultra-Orthodox voters (who unlike Israeli Arabs have a very high turnout) for parties that automatically join right-wing governments.

An ultra-Orthodox father helps his kids cast his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem. April 9, 2019
\ Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

The third thing you can do is recognize and strengthen Jerusalem. No, not the non-existent "eternally united Jerusalem" of a thousand politicians’ clichés, of the over-romanticized Diaspora imagination, or the hellish segregated City of David of settler supremacists and Trumpist evangelicals

Recognize Jerusalem for what it is: An urban sprawl reaching from Ramallah in the north, to Bethlehem in the south and from Mevasseret and Abu Ghosh in the west, to yes, also Maaleh Adumim in the east. In the not-too distant future one big city of two million people, half Jewish, half Palestinian.

Sorry, but the conflict is not going to be solved any time soon. But large portions of both nations will continue to live cheek-by-jowl in Greater Jerusalem, and since neither the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority are about to do anything to improve living conditions for a de facto collective sharing the same water and sewage systems, the same hospitals and the same roads, Jerusalem is the one place where you can make a difference.

Whether it's by donating to one of the tiny handful of NGOs that are trying to work out ways to coexist there, or simply by visiting and not sticking to just one side of the city, but meeting people and spreading your tourism dollars on all sides. And for those who have more influence, relevant knowledge and access to institutional and philanthropic resources, Jerusalem offers a huge range of fields in which to get involved.

Pushing back against Netanyahu’s Israel shouldn’t mean just waiting for a government to change, in Jerusalem or Washington. And no, fulminating on social media, cheerleading clueless politicians and even chaining yourself outside a local Jewish federation will do absolutely nothing to change things on the ground.

Israelis and Palestinians have no shortage of empty virtue signaling.