Move on From the American-Jewish Liberal vs. Israeli Liberal Fight Club

Enough with the blame game. U.S. Jews have the absolute right to speak out on Israel. But without partners from the Israeli left and center addressing American Jews publicly and unflinchingly nothing will change.


Sorry, I don’t feel guilty. Not one bit. The occupation of the West Bank and the endangered Jewish majority in the State of Israel are issues that keep me up at night, but responsibility for them does not fall on me or on other American Jews. In fact, there is something farcical about the current media debate in which liberal Israelis and liberal American Jews point fingers at each other, each side suggesting that the other is somehow to blame for not caring enough to stop the rot eating away at Israel’s liberal ideals.  

This exchange began with Chemi Shalev’s Haaretz column charging liberal betrayal by American Jews who choose to remain silent while Israeli democracy withers and dies. Forward editor Jane Eisner responded, sort of, suggesting that Israel’s ineffective left is at fault, but noting at the same time that Shalev made her feel chastened and defensive. Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg has now jumped into the fray, with the somewhat bizarre argument that the real villains are American Jewish organizations that abandoned their liberal agenda in 1966, leaving most American Jews without communal leadership to channel their liberal political sentiments. According to Goldberg, if Jewish institutions had remained true to the ideals of their liberal constituency, there would now be a structure in place to combat the antidemocratic legislation supported by the rightwing in Israel.

Shalev, Eisner, and Goldberg are smart and insightful columnists and reporters, but it is not easy to make sense of what they are saying. They are all partly right, but it is hard to see the benefit of the blame game in which they are now engaged. Israeli liberals and American Jewish liberals can spend their time clubbing each other over the head and exchanging invective, or they can unite in a grand coalition to champion sane and sensible Israeli policies, foreign and domestic.  

I prefer the latter course, with all the obstacles that stand in its way. If we are to bring such a coalition into being, we should start with two simple steps.  

The first step is to assert, without equivocation or apology, that American Jews have the absolute right to involve themselves in the arguments and the politics of the Jewish state.  I was stunned by Eisner’s reservations on this point, expressed in her statement that “we don’t have bomb shelters in our basement” and “we don’t send our children into harm’s way.” Correct, we don’t, but these are not reasons for silence and never have been. In fact, this is an old, discredited argument that, if accepted now, would make any worthwhile conversation in America about Israel impossible.  

So let’s be clear: Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and Zionism affirms that Israel is the concern and the potential home of Jews everywhere. For almost 70 years, Israelis and Zionist activists have invited us to the Zionist party, reminded us of our connections to Eretz Yisrael, and asked us for our help and support. This means that they cannot ask us now to sit in the corner and be silent. This means that we need no one’s permission to express our views on Israeli matters. And this means that we are entitled to do what we can to influence Israel’s policies. These are rights that Zionism bestows on all Jews, and we need not justify ourselves to anyone.  

The second step is to convince Israeli liberals that if they want the cooperation and support of American Jews with similar values, they need to ask for it, work for it, and set aside their long-standing resistance to getting their hands dirty on the American Jewish scene. Part of the reason that Shalev’s argument about American Jewish “betrayal” rings hollow is that almost all political, cultural, and military figures in Israel with leftist or moderate views fall silent the minute that they find themselves on American soil.  They might confide their deepest concerns to close friends or in small, off-the-record gatherings, but they abide by the “don’t speak ill of my government abroad” policy that is the Israeli norm—in theory for all Israelis but especially for those on the left. 

On a certain level, of course, I understand this, and even sympathize with it. Still, Israeli public figures with deep concerns about the occupation and Israel’s standing in the world must overcome their hesitation to publicly share their views with American Jews. When I served in positions of leadership in the American Jewish community, nothing infuriated me more than Israeli leaders of the left and center who came to America and pushed me to speak up while insisting on remaining silent themselves. And yes, criticism of Israel, if properly expressed, can be articulated in America without defaming the Jewish state or playing into the hands of BDS.  

Who is guilty of betrayal here? True, the Jews of America need the courage to challenge the influence of conservative donors and overly cautious Jewish organizations. Nonetheless, confronted by a barrage of conflicting and confusing media voices, American Jews need direction and support from responsible Israeli opinion makers. And this means progressive Israelis, prominent at home, who can explain in measured and thoughtful tones the dangers to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character posed by the current rightwing government. And this needs to be done face-to-face, here in America, in an organized way, and without minimizing the dangers that Israel faces.  

Enough with the finger pointing. If we hope to recruit liberal American Jews to join the battle for a democratic and progressive Israel, liberal and centrist Israelis will need to pitch in. No complaints from the Israeli left, please, until your leaders are willing to join with us and to create the grand coalition that both sides desperately require. 

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012, is a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.  Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie.