In Battle for Israel, Jewish Liberals Stay Aloof but Jewish Right-wingers Go All In

American Jews are only 'engaged witnesses,' the Forward’s Jane Eisner writes, which won’t help much when the house is on fire.

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It was only on the very last line of her article Have Liberal Jews Betrayed Israel? that Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward newspaper, truly lost me.  “In the end, all we can ask is to be highly knowledgeable and engaged witnesses to each other’s stories,” she wrote, presumably in response to the question her own article had posed. If this was the extent of our ties, I realized, my expectations had been far too high. My relationship with American Jews was built on a lie.

Eisner was responding to my dismay at the fact that mostly uber-liberal American Jews were staying silent as Israeli democracy withered. I guess it’s OK to be nothing more than “engaged witnesses” when things are hunky dory and everything is going swell; but when my house is on fire, or even when I’m just smelling smoke and starting to panic, I expect my good friends, never mind my close family, to drop everything and help put it out. I would certainly not expect them to feel resentful because I cried out for assistance or to start quibbling whether the people who actually live in the house were doing their fair share to stamp out the fire.

But in her bracingly frank reaction, Eisner insists “the demoralized Israeli left needs to get its own act together before it demands more from us.” And rather than empathizing with the anguish of this “demoralized” Israeli left or endeavoring to help jolt it out of its lethargy, Eisner was left  “chastened, defensive, frustrated and, I’ll admit, not a little angry with those Israelis who want American Jews to save them.”  Seems I had erroneously ascribed the non-interference of liberal American Jews to an indifference I found infuriating; after reading Eisner, I realized that it wasn’t apathy I was dealing with, but ideology. And that is a whole different ballgame.

“I don’t feel comfortable dictating Israeli policy any more than I want an Israeli dictating American policy,” Eisner writes, as if both of us weren’t committed to a profession that cherishes its ability, in the immortal words of Finley Peter Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There is no known universe, moreover, in which Israeli attitudes to America, appreciative as they may be, are comparable in any way to the deep and abiding emotional, psychological and practical attachment that many American Jews feel, or at least felt, toward the one and only Jewish state. Such an analogy, as Israeli hasbara gurus love to say, creates a false moral equivalence.

Of course, when I wrote about “American Jews” who stay silent as Israeli democracy withers, I did not include those who are in complete agreement with the Israeli government’s barely-disguised efforts to curtail freedoms, stifle dissent, maintain Orthodox theocracy or entrench the occupation. Nor was I addressing those Jewish Americans who have no interest whatsoever in Israel’s wellbeing, or worse, actually wish it ill.

My protest, which could equally be described as a plea, was aimed at those American Jews who still consider themselves ardent liberals and committed Zionists; those who stubbornly cling to the belief that Israel has no choice but to be both Jewish and democratic; those who understand that the continuation of the status quo sets Israel on a road that leads to an abyss; those who stay up at night fretting that the Israel of their dreams could soon turn into a nightmare. These are the American Jews of whom I apparently had such unrealistic expectations, which, as in any relationship, inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak.

I agree with Eisner that Israeli leaders shouldn’t presume to speak on behalf of all the Jews in the world: they were neither elected nor anointed for the job. Unlike her, apparently, I believe that the Jewish people are a community, if not a family, and that within that community liberal Jews are, or at least should start to be, dear friends, cherished allies and close collaborators.

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There’s no denying, of course, that leftist Israelis have historically been distant if not arrogant toward their Jewish relatives overseas, but that myopic mistake does not absolve American Jews of their obligation to communal solidarity, or arvut hadadit, because all of Israel, or at least like-minded Jews, should be responsible for each other. In times of distress and emergency they are obligated to help first and ask questions later, or at the very least, to ask questions first before turning their backs and looking the other way.

Of course, one can dispute or even dismiss the growing apprehension of many liberal-minded Israelis about the government’s malicious designs, the severity of steps it has already taken or the influence that such measures will have on their lives. But if one assumes that Israelis are the ones who know best who and what is a threat to security they should also be trusted to determine if and when their freedoms are truly in danger. Yes, Israeli lefties are known as a morose and impatient bunch who have cried wolf many times before; it would be a tragedy if they continue to be ignored, as Aesop wrote, when the wolf is clearly barking at the door.

Eisner believes that Israeli security concerns are “mitigating factors in assessing civil liberties,” though I question whether she would feel the same if it was her own civil liberties that were under siege. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said “those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In any case, this equation is also false: if Israeli ministers are seeking to ban books from schoolrooms, undermine leftist NGOs and human right organizations or exert political control over Israeli media, the last thing on their minds is Israeli security concerns. Their vendetta is purely political and immensely cynical, nothing more and nothing less.

American liberals can stubbornly cling to the anachronistic axiom of only supporting the duly elected Israeli government, but in doing so they may be aiding and abetting a plot to weaken and neutralize the very Israelis with whom they agree.

Nonetheless, American Jews should not feel obliged to enlist in the war to save Israeli democracy only as an act of charity or solidarity, but out of pure self-interest as well: their commitment to Israeli democracy is, or should be, just as great, if not greater, than their support for Israel’s defense and security.  Israel has enough manpower and weaponry to protect itself from its external enemies; what it lacks are the troops, the arsenal and the combat morale that will enable it to fight for its democratic soul at the same time.

Flickr / Moshe Zusman

American Jews would do well to remember that if and when Israeli democracy goes off the rails irreversibly, they too will find themselves detached, depressed and wracked by guilt forever more. What will they tell their grandchildren when they ask how they allowed such a tragedy to happen? We didn’t feel completely comfortable? We thought it best that Israelis learn their lesson and deal with it by themselves?

Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. Think about a scenario, fantastical as it may seem, in which America changes for the worse; perhaps the economy is depressed or security is breached or Israel commits some grievous mistake that changes public opinion and suddenly being Jewish isn’t so cool anymore. Imagine if Orthodox Jews are unbothered but liberal Jews of all denominations see telltale signs of deterioration and cry out for help. Would they expect their Israeli counterparts to say that they’re staying out of it? Would they maintain, as Eisner does, of Israel, “We cannot and should not be expected to save American Jews from themselves?”

Right wing American Jews certainly don’t feel such compunctions. They are completely immersed and totally engaged in furthering their beliefs and advancing their causes in Israel, with all their heart and far too much of their money: they did so when the left was in power and the right felt like a beleaguered minority and they continue to do so with even greater gusto when a government after their own heart rules in Jerusalem. They are men (and women) with a singular mission. They don’t divide their attention and their resources between myriad worthy causes, like many liberals do, however understandably, from saving whales to climate change to getting out the vote. And when the Israeli right cries out for help, they don’t respond with lectures: how much do you need, they’ll ask, tell us what to do.

Of course there are many worthwhile causes in Israel that promote democracy and are supported by well-meaning liberal American organizations and philanthropists, but nothing to compare with the total and blatantly partisan commitment of rich and conservative Americans, Jewish and Evangelical. It is one of the Israeli right’s main strategic assets and one of the primary reasons it has consistently won battles and conquered new ground in recent years, in Israel and across America. Comparing their ruthless and relentless onslaught to the timid tread of American Jewish liberals, one cannot but feel a disheartening mix of envy, jealousy and dread.