The Jewish-American Battle for Israeli Democracy Stops at the Green Line

Why does the nation-state bill offend America's Jewish establishment more than the occupation?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
The separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
The separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.Credit: Nir Kafri
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Over the past week, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Reform and Conservative movements – all pillars of America's Jewish establishment – have done something unusual: They’ve criticized Israel. All three groups have denounced the Jewish nation-state bill, approved by Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, that they claim undermines the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens and endangers Israeli democracy.

I’m pleased. And I’m confused.

The bill, argues the ADL, “could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one.” The Conservative movement warns of the “possible erosion of democratic freedoms resulting from this bill, the risk of attrition of the rights of Arabs.”

Fair enough. But if American Jewish groups oppose the nation-state bill because it undermines the “rights of Arabs” inside the Green Line, surely they should be even more upset by Israeli policy in the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians lack any citizenship at all. The nation-state bill may threaten a “possible erosion of democratic freedoms” in Israel proper. But for Palestinians in the West Bank – who cannot vote for the government that controls their lives – there are barely any democratic freedoms to erode.

Yet with the partial exception of the Reform movement, the organizations that criticize the nation-state bill almost never criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank. The ADL’s website explains why settlements are neither an obstacle to peace nor a violation of international law, why checkpoints don’t constitute collective punishment and why the separation barrier does not seize Palestinian land. But the ADL doesn’t criticize Israel for maintaining a dual legal system under which Jews enjoy due process, freedom of movement and the right to vote while Palestinians live under a military law so draconian that it forbids ten or more of them from assembling for a political purpose – even in a private home – without prior government permission. Indeed, when asked about military law in the West Bank in 2010, the ADL’s Foxman replied that, “I’m not an expert on the judicial system and I don’t intend to be I don’t intend to come here and become your civil liberties union.”

It’s the same with the other groups. In recent years, both the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Conservative Movement have passed resolutions criticizing Israel for infringing upon the rights of non-Orthodox Jews (especially non-Orthodox Jewish women) inside the Green Line. Yet neither, as far as I can tell, has ever passed a resolution criticizing Israeli behavior in the West Bank.

What explains the double standard? The conventional answer is that American Jewish groups feel more comfortable expressing opinions about Israeli society than Israeli security. But subsuming everything Israel does in the West Bank under the heading of “security” is silly. Even if you believe that security concerns vindicate Israel’s military control of the West Bank, those concerns still don’t justify Israel’s policy of subsidizing civilians to move there. Indeed, from a purely military perspective, protecting remote civilian settlements makes the Israel Defense Forces' work harder.

The real reason for the double standard is more insidious. It’s easier to criticize Israeli misdeeds inside the Green Line because those misdeeds represent an exception to the democratic norm. Thus, American Jewish groups can condemn the nation-state bill while still praising the generally democratic ethos from which it deviates. And by leavening their criticism with praise, they can distinguish themselves from the “demonizers” and “delegitimizers” whose harsher criticisms of Israel they abhor.

But when it comes to Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the West Bank, there is no democratic ethos from which to deviate. In the West Bank, Israeli rule is undemocratic to its core. Which means that when you criticize one aspect of the occupation, you begin peeling away the layers of an onion. And pretty quickly, that leads to the kind of fundamental, structural criticisms of Israeli policy that the American Jewish establishment rejects.

In criticizing the nation-state law, Foxman warned against tinkering with “the foundational principle of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a principle that has been so clear and natural since the country’s founding.” But in the 47 years that Israel has controlled the West Bank, that principle has been neither clear nor natural.
By confining their criticisms to what happens inside Israel proper, American Jewish leaders avoid confronting that reality. They maintain the pretense that Israel is a Middle Eastern version of the United States: a democracy that makes some mistakes. When you peer across the Green Line, that pretense collapses. Which is why the American Jewish establishment – even as it talks about defending Israeli democracy – refuses to take a hard and honest look.

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