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American Jewish SOS: How to Defend Israel but Fight for Its Democracy and Decency

In the age of Trump, Netanyahu is perceived as an Israeli leader who does not share or appreciate American Jewish values

Chemi Shalev
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File photo: An Israeli man sells Israeli flags ahead of Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv.
File photo: An Israeli man sells Israeli flags ahead of Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev

You don’t have to get too well acquainted with American Jews to sense their angst or to feel their pain. If Israel was once described as the new religion of American Jews, many are now experiencing doubts, if not heresy. American Jewish leaders talk about the Israeli government with hitherto inconceivable bitterness. American Jews, on the other hand, are more worried that angry, more disconcerted than determined, more fearful of what Israel is doing to itself than of what its Middle East enemies are plotting.

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Of course it’s not all about egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall and Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to renege on the agreement that was supposed to regulate the issue once and for all. But the shock and anger emanating from Reform and Conservative officials and clergy is being felt inside their congregations and beyond. It’s like a dam that’s burst, allowing years of repressed resentment to gush forth.  Once Israel’s mystique was shattered, the aftershocks are felt farther and wider than ever before.

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Some American Jews that I’ve spoken to in recent days are more upset by Netanyahu’s apparent willingness to sell them down the river at the behest of Orthodox Jews than they are by the change in egalitarian prayer procedures at the Western Wall, which they weren’t planning to visit anyway. Others are suddenly seething, after 70 years of complacency, at the Jewish State’s refusal to recognize two of the largest American Jewish religious denominations. Some are concerned about the lack of peace and what seems like the Israeli government’s continuing right-wing radicalization.  Others are aghast at the close ties and mutual admiration society that have developed between Netanyahu and Donald Trump, their least favorite world leader.

The cancellation of the Kotel deal did not happen in a void, of course. Liberal American Jews have been struggling with their attitudes towards right wing, occupation-addicted Israel for a decade at least, as Peter Beinart documented in his book “The Crisis of Zionism.” Things got much worse when Netanyahu decided to go on the warpath against liberal Jews’ most favorite world leader, Barack Obama, in his March 2015 speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal. Two years later, the Kotel debacle has denied closure for many liberal Jews, resurfacing the ire that liberal Jews felt at the time. Between his often-unwarranted hostility towards Obama and his consistently overdone fawning over Trump, Netanyahu is increasingly being perceived as an Israeli leader who does not truly share or even appreciate American Jewish values.

And then there is the internal distress, of which Israel is also the cause. Trump’s election has exacerbated already tense relations between right and left and between the Orthodox communities and all the rest. American right wing activists have long adopted the incendiary rhetoric of their Israeli colleagues towards leftist Jews, but with a vengeance. For years, right-wing donors have effectively leveraged their ample donations to stifle leftist dissent in most Jewish institutions. Now, with Trump in the White House, feelings are running higher than ever and the battle lines are drawn ever more clearly. Much like the groundswell of Christian resentment toward the Evangelicals, it will take a long time for liberal Jews to forgive their Orthodox brethren for their unabashed support for Trump, which, in their view, is repudiation of Jewish values in and of itself. By the same token, right wing Jews dedicated to Israel are outraged by the liberal indifference to what they consider Trump’s pro-Israel policies.

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The new tensions threaten to fuel the already burning bonfire of disagreements on Israel. Because the topic arouses ever-stronger emotions and strife in the Jewish community, many rabbis have avoiding substantive statements on the Israel conflict in their sermons from the pulpit. Guests and regulars at Shabbat dinners throughout American are being warned in advance to refrain from talking about Israel, lest the meal deteriorate into petty bickering and shouting matches. From the country that everyone loves to talk about, Israel has evolved into one that no one dares discuss.

Given their reluctance to criticize Israel in public, or to be seen by relatives and acquaintances as Jews who wash their family’s dirty laundry for all the goyim to see, many American Jews have simply dropped Israel from their conversations altogether. They have lost some of their energy to advocate on its behalf. For a community struggling with the increasing distance of its younger generation from Israel, the lack of pushback from parents and other adults could be fatal for the already precarious chances that the next generation of American Jews will also have Israel’s back.

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This is not to say that American Jews no longer love Israel. They do, but like you love a close family relative who is in chronic trouble or one who’s doing harm to his or her self.  American Jews have come to realize, to their dismay, that Israel has deep and dangerous flaws. Unbridled cliché-infested enthusiasm for those amazing sabras and their stupendous accomplishments sounds increasingly hollow to them. They have a pain in their gut and absolutely no idea how to cure it.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell after my second visit to America in as many months, is distress and dismay. American Jews are rethinking their relationship to Israel, but they are doing so on their own. Israeli leaders are ill equipped to meet the challenge, given that they are one of its major causes, and the American Jewish community has long lost its internal unity, and with it the prospects of finding Jewish leaders with enough stature to speak on behalf of all. 

American Jews are questioning their previous unqualified support for Israel, viewing it suddenly as supplying the addict with drugs, enabling the kind of callous attitude they’ve come to expect from Netanyahu and his right wing government. They are looking for a formula that will allow them to continue supporting Israel’s security needs without encouraging the country’s baser instincts. Which is, in a nutshell, exactly what they need to do. 

American Jews should not allow Netanyahu to dictate their attitudes towards Israel. They should not accept his dichotomous for-us-or-against-us division of good vs. bad Jews. Netanyahu’s is Israel’s prime minister, not its soul, and even that, perhaps, for not much longer. Thus, anyone who believes that the support of American Jews is still be vital for Israel’s security and that the Evangelicals are a poor replacement – as evidenced by the poll released on Monday that shows decreasing support for Israel among younger Evangelicals - faces the challenge of changing the established paradigm of Israel’s relations with American Jews without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The guiding principles of this future relationship can be formulated, with no direct analogy intended, along the lines of Winston Churchill’s remark that the allies should fight Hitler as if Stalin was an ally and should oppose Stalin as if there was no Hitler. Or Yitzhak Rabin’s similarly constructed maxim that Israel should fight terror as if there was no peace process and pursue peace as if there was no terror. Thus, American Jews can defend Israel and support its security needs as if there was no clash of values between the Jewish State and the Jews, but they should fight for Israeli democracy and civil society as if Israel had no security needs at all.

American Jews should cancel the blank cheque that they have given Israel. Even if one accepts Israel’s judgment on war and peace, under the principle that those who don’t live there and don’t send their sons to the army should leave such decisions to the Israelis themselves, there are many other struggles that Israel is facing that will have direct bearing on the future of American Jews:  Pluralism, democracy and constitutional freedoms lead the list. On pluralism, particularly, Reform and Conservative Jews have just as much skin in the game as anyone else, especially if they succeed in building up an Israeli presence over the coming few years.   And while one can state that on issues of security American Jews are not privy to all the relevant considerations, there is nothing mysterious about the growing Orthodox demands or the steady decline of Netanyahu’s commitment to democratic norms. On these issues, in fact, American Jews are no less knowledgeable than Israelis themselves.

More importantly, American Jews should intervene in Israel’s internal affairs out of a sense of self-preservation. Allowing Israel to continue to slide towards ethnocentric nationalism will ultimately undo 70 years of an extraordinary relationship that has buttressed Israel but also the community itself. Once American Jews reach the conclusion that Israel has passed the point of no return in terms of its ideals and values, their bewilderment will evolve into resentment and ultimately divorce.

Israeli liberals and others who are alarmed by Netanyahu’s move must also do their part and reach out to their worried American brethren. American Jews, for their part, should seek out those Israeli personalities and organizations that actively fight for the values that they hold dear – and support them to the hilt. There are enough of them around, even if one’s politics precludes support for groups that focus on the right of Palestinians. American Jews should not be afraid to put their money where their mouths are and to reexamine each and every dollar that goes to bodies and agencies that merely perpetuate the status quo and enable Orthodox demands and Netanyahu’s disdain that are directed against them.

You can say a lot of things about American Jews – and some Israelis, unfortunately, have been saying them recently – but stupid, they’re not.

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