Over the past century, while millions of Jews were victimized by oppressive regimes, American Jews stayed safe and prospered. Thus American Jews know first-hand that only when minorities are shielded from the tyranny of the majority, only when society protects its most vulnerable members, including those seen as different and even despised by some other citizens, only then can democracy flourish.
As the direct beneficiaries of, and as contributors to, American democracy, there is one clear way in which American Jews looking for a meaningful way to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary should mark the event: double down in your vigilance to protect Israeli democracy.
Not by repeating the mantra that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but by pressuring Israel’s leaders to live up to the vision of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. To promote justice, equality, and peace, safeguarding the liberal and Jewish values that bind together most Jews in the world.
American Jews like myself who have made Israel our home know how democracy and liberal values get tested when a nation is in conflict.
Just in the past week, the unprecedented prospect of Iran setting up shop in Syria under a Russian and Turkish umbrella has upended the assumptions of our defense establishment, while ratcheting up the national anxiety meter.
Clear and present dangers make it easier for politicians to manipulate the public’s insecurity, and increase our willingness to tolerate autocratic and anti-democratic behavior. Tragically, some of the most immediate threats to Israeli democracy come from our current leaders. A few examples should suffice.
Two of the criminal investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cases 2000 and 4000, address his attempt to trade political favors in exchange for a guarantee of positive news coverage of himself as a leader.
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Trying to control the media, one of the pillars of any functioning democracy, typifies autocrats from Putin to Erdogan. Bear in mind that Israel already has a free daily newspaper devoted to propping up Netanyahu: Yisrael Hayom, and that Netanyahu brags about trying to close down the Channel 10 television network because of its critical coverage.
Consider also the latest in a string of assaults on Israel’s High Court, part of a campaign to diminish the balance of powers between the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government.
Netanyahu flirted with a reasonable and humane plan to resettle half of Israel’s African refugees and asylum seekers in the West via the U.N., and disperse the other half around Israel to relieve the enormous stress on South Tel Aviv, while granting the refugees work permits and social services.
But Habayit Hayehudi party head Naftali Bennett and Likud extremists, who have veered from supporting settlements to a far more disturbing nationalism of ethnic purity, insisted on deporting every last black African refugee. Netanyahu not only caved in, but sought to expedite legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down as illegal his plan to round up and deport black people against their will. Legislating a way for the government to bypass the Supreme Court will do enormous damage to the balance of powers so crucial to democracy. The fact that Netanyahu made this call on Holocaust Day shows our leader’s Jewish and moral obtuseness.
Netanyahu also tried to feed the mob a scapegoat; in this case, the New Israel Fund, a foundation that collects money from American Jews who seek to promote democracy and liberal causes in Israel. American Jews know that when a government starts initiating and accusing others of witch-hunts instead of defending its policies in words, democracy is going very wrong.
(Full disclosure; the foundation I represent, the Moriah Fund, is a donor to the New Israel Fund, and the NGO I head, the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, receives funding through NIF.)
Israel no longer needs American Jewish dollars for survival, but it does need philanthropy to shore up liberal values, to strengthen democracy, to fight for political, social and economic justice, to help equalize opportunity in Israel for all members of Israeli society, including Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, and Arab citizens, and to strengthen the forces of peace.
American Jewish philanthropy and activism must not shy away from politically charged issues, especially at a time when massive funding from right-wing American Jews shores up the settlement movement and helps undermine the possibilities for peace.
Many American Jews, for example, find Israel’s treatment of African refugees to be shocking and against Jewish values, and their speaking out has made a difference. Whether American Jews think Israel’s response to the Gaza protests has been harsh but justified or a brutal overreaction, they must feel free to debate this as well.
American Jewish life and Israeli Jewish life follow different arcs. To take the most obvious example, Jewish youth in Israel leave home for army service, in America for university. But outside of the American and Israeli Orthodox worlds, we don’t know each other. Birthright is a starting point but can’t be an ending point.
American Jews need to experience Israel as a real place, one that both makes demands on them and offers them direct, meaningful, and ongoing personal engagement, interactions that are not only about raising funds or celebrating lifecycle events. We need more traffic back and forth across the Atlantic.
Israelis need to experience the diversity and richness and pluralism of American Jewish life. Liberal American Jews need to face the challenge of applying their values to situations of conflict and danger, and have opportunities to share their American know-how to help equalize opportunity in Israeli education, guarantee women’s rights and protect the environment.
As we celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, we should stop to appreciate our unique historical moment; the conjunction of a Jewish and democratic country, no longer in its infancy, and the most secure and empowered Jewish diaspora community in history. We ought to become real partners in our nation-building and our political discourse, in holding our leaders to account, and in protecting the critical values that keep both our communities safe and free.
Don Futterman is the Program Director, Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation that works to strengthen Israeli democracy, and promote civil rights and peace. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.