On Saturday night, thousands of Israelis rallied at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, calling on their government to end the fighting in Gaza and actively seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reading about this demonstration, and the one held three weeks earlier, from across an ocean, filled me with hope – both for Israel’s future, and for what Israelis still can teach American Jewry.
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As a Jewish American, I have learned so much from the figures who spoke at the rally, like author David Grossman and Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On. They speak out of a genuine concern for Palestinian suffering and Israel’s future. Their sincerity and commitment to justice is an important counterweight to the insularity and hawkishness that dominates the conversation here in the United States.
But that hope is increasingly overshadowed by a spate of Israeli initiatives designed to silence these critical voices. Just a few days before the July 26 protest, Sar Shalom Jerbi, the director of Israel’s National Service administration, removed B’Tselem from the roster of organizations where Israelis could undergo national service. Jerbi accused B’Tselem, a prominent human rights organization, of acting “against the state and its soldiers.” This ban, which has since been frozen by the Attorney General’s office, comes at the heels of a Supreme Court ruling supporting the Israel Broadcast Authority’s decision not to air a B'Tselem ad in which the names of Gazan children killed in the fighting are read out.
Unfortunately, these moves are just the latest in an ever-growing list of state-sponsored initiatives designed to curtail progressive NGOs and voices. From the Knesset bill that sought to limit funding to left-leaning NGOs, to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s “loyalty oath,” there’s a worrying pattern in Israel of targeting critical organizations,
Of course, the most immediate danger is to Israel’s democratic fabric. And there’s another, less obvious danger: the one to the American Jewish community.
There’s a parallel, disturbing trend of scepticism in the established Jewish community toward pro-peace, anti-occupation activism. Just in the past year, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations rejected J Street’s membership bid and Jewish institutions, from JCCs to Hillels, banned speakers and artists critical of Israeli policy on numerous occasions.
Oftentimes, the bans and responses to them where criticized as restrictions on free speech and expression. Institutions claimed that certain ideas were “beyond the pale” while progressive Jews called for deeper civil discourse and richer communication. While the issues each side raised are extremely important, they are not the only matters in question.
B’Tselem does not exist merely for the sake of furthering discourse. Left wing protestors do not brave ostracism and chants of “death to leftists” just to expand the conversation. These groups and individuals are acting out of a common love for both Israel and her neighbors. They are engaging in vital political activism to secure Israel’s democratic existence alongside freedom and justice for the people it oppresses. Despite Israel’s challenging geopolitics, these activists understand the urgent necessity of forging a joint, just and peaceful future between Israelis and Palestinians.
When Israel takes steps to curtail groups like B’Tselem, its sends a message to Diaspora Jews that being vocally anti-occupation and concerned with human rights really is beyond the pale. It frames the lessons of David Grossman and B’Tselem - that pursuing peace and human rights is a brave, pro-Israel endeavour - as antithetical to the values of the Jewish state. As the Haaretz Editorial pointed out, “B’Tselem does not act against the state or its army, on the contrary: It tries to maintain its moral image, therefore fulfilling an important mission.”
As a progressive Jew, I am empowered by B’Tselem and organizations like it in Israel; in fact, it’s a cornerstone of my support. I can take solace in the fact that while Jewish American institutions might shun “internal” criticism, groups in Israel welcome it.
But when the Jewish state curtails that expression, it only reinforces the American Jewish community’s aversion to progressive Israel activism, and tells the growing cohort of young, progressive American Jews that their brand of pro-Israel activism isn’t welcome either. In that face of Israel’s growing international isolation, that attitude is incredibly dangerous.
The American Jewish community, already disposed to silencing unwanted voices, must not conform to Jerbi’s worldview. We have a responsibility to take the right lessons to heart. Pro-peace organizations, activists and activities are vital services to Israel and its future. Jewish Americans should listen to Israeli peace activists when they tell us that silencing criticism undermines the future of the Jewish state, and incorporate this worldview in our own activism.
Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org