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Liberal Jews of the World, Unite! The Only Thing You Have to Lose Is Your Pain

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Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students protesting Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in Washington, D.C., May 14, 2018.
Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students protesting Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in Washington, D.C., May 14, 2018. Credit: Gili Getz

American Jews of the liberal persuasion and Israelis who view themselves as left of center cannot be defined as birds of a feather, but in the days of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, they should be flocking together nonetheless. Both groups feel threatened by the anti-democratic, right-wing turn of their own countries and both are crestfallen because of the similarly ominous direction taken by the other country they love.

American Jews have it worse. Israelis, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, have gradually grown complacent, despite the steady erosion of the very foundations of their imperfect liberal democracy. American Jews, on the other hand are still in shock over Trump’s election and his turbulent first two years in office. Their distress grows deeper by the day, including Saturday, when the U.S. Senate confirmed the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, a tainted judge whose views on the U.S. Constitution are anathema to their core values.

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At the same time, American Jews are not only repelled, like many Israelis, by Netanyahu’s overall policies on issues such as the occupation, democracy and the rule of law, but also feel specifically targeted and personally rejected by Israel’s Orthodox monopoly. They are still smarting from Netanyahu’s June 2017 decision to renege on the signed agreement concerning prayers at the Western Wall.

Israelis who oppose Netanyahu, on the other hand, have no reason to feel singled out or spurned by Trump. On the contrary, although Trump receives his strongest support by far from the Israeli right, appreciation for his policies on Israel and the Middle East crosses party lines and includes significant parts of the center and center-left.  According to the most recent Peace Index published by Tel Aviv University, less than 30 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that negotiations with the Palestinians can lead to a peace agreement. The Israeli peace camp may not like Trump’s get-tough attitude toward the Palestinians, but they don’t blame it for the stagnating stalemate in relations between the two enemy sides.

At the same time, however, it is clear to all Israelis that Trump is the chief enabler of the Netanyahu coalition’s hyper-nationalist, ethnocentric drive to elevate Jewish Israelis above all others, as expressed in the recent nation-state law, and of its efforts to stifle dissent by demonizing the left.

Trump’s general indifference to violations of human and civil rights and admiration for “strong leaders” are destructive in and of themselves, but they are doubly critical when it comes to Israel and his BFF Netanyahu. Even Israelis who were not enthused by Barack Obama’s policies toward Israel can now appreciate his vigilance in curbing Netanyahu’s darker urges.

And while the liberalism of a majority of American Jews is in no way synonymous with the leftism of a minority of Israelis – the latter are less committed, for example, to the rights of immigrants and minorities – both groups feel that their democracies as well as their core beliefs are under siege. Both fear that their countries are crossing hitherto sacrosanct constitutional red lines. Both are apprehensive that sooner or later, they themselves will be targeted by their governments and even more so, by the hate-filled mobs their leaders’ regularly inspire and incite.

Both groups have also grown increasingly suspicious and even hostile toward their own. American Jews watch in dismay as their small but vocal and committed right-wing section sides with Trump and whispers in his ear, as evidenced by the tight relationship between the President and Sheldon Adelson. Israeli leftists, on the other hand, are ever more aware that a fanatic religious-right minority not only directs Netanyahu’s policies but is actively seeking to suppress the Israeli left and silence it.

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Nonetheless, despite their common agenda and shared fears, the two groups remain distant from each other. Israeli leftists follow the long tradition of their political camp, which originated with the country’s socialist Eastern European founders and first leaders, to disregard American Jewry and to belittle their contribution to their own security. American Jews, on the other hand, have kept their distance from the Israeli left, deterred by the stigma that the right has succeeded in attaching to the peace camp’s patriotism and loyalty. They prefer to defer to the Israeli powers that be, whose values they often despise, rather than form a coalition with their opponents, whose worldview they share, at least partially.

Leftist Israelis, of course, may not be of much help to American Jews in resisting Trump, but they can serve as a vital lifeline to maintaining their ties to Israel, for those who are still so inclined, in hope of better times. American Jews, for their part, won’t ensure regime change in Israel, but they could provide crucial assistance, both material and inspirational, that might lift the Israeli left out of its current doldrums and strengthen its ability and resolve to resist Netanyahu and his policies.

The call for a new liberal alliance is not new – I, along with several others, have made it in the past – but it is now more urgent and vital than ever. Establishing a new partnership between the liberal factions of the world’s two largest Jewish communities can no longer be relegated to the random efforts of well-meaning private individuals and dedicated groups on the fringe.  A formal framework that would represent both groups, foster ties between them and formulate joint policies that both can pursue could very well be the only way to address their shared concerns and aspirations.

Such a group should not include representatives of the Israeli government, whose only mission would be to defend Netanyahu and his policies and to sabotage efforts to counter them. Likewise, it should not include representatives of the American Jewish establishment, especially from groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, whose main purpose in life is to paper over differences between Israel and the United States and to serve as apologists for both. Both groups cannot allow themselves to be deterred by the expected right-wing assault on such a renegade institution, for that would be a capitulation to the same oppressive groupthink that enables Trump and Netanyahu anti-democratic onslaught in the first place.

Rather, a new Coalition of Liberal Americans and Israelis, as it might be called, could not only dedicate itself to nurturing ties between the two beleaguered groups, but also map out their shared liberal values, including support for democracy, equality, free speech and the rule of law, and adopt joint programs to fight for them. Such a partnership could relieve Israeli leftists of their increasing sense of dejection and isolation and provide American Jews who have yet to turn their backs on Israel with a new anchor for their continuing attachment to the Jewish state.

Jewish liberals of the world must unite, because the only thing they have to lose is their frustration and pain. Whether through a formal framework, as proposed above, or by more energetic and concerted efforts to build up informal ties, at the very least, a new partnership between like-minded Israelis and American Jews could help both groups survive their current travails both intact and motivated.

The first task of this new all-liberal Jewish framework would be to formulate a shared declaration of independence, espousing their values, denouncing those who would undermine them and pledging to work together to maintain them. It is a tall branch to hang on, but both sides would do right to heed Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition to the Continental Congress on the eve of the signing of America’s own Declaration of Independence in 1776,  "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

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