For American Jews who care about Israel’s future as a democracy, as a Jewish nation-state that champions Jewish values, as a Jewish homeland they can be proud of, Israel’s early elections are a call for action.
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The next 96 days leading up to the March 17 elections offer American Jews a rare opportunity to influence Israel's future character – not through their pocketbooks, but by asserting their vision of what a Jewish, democratic state should look like.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's third government fell apart because four of its key coalition members – Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet and Tzipi Livni – represent very different, even opposing, visions of Israel’s future character. When confronted with the Jewish nation-state bill, the leaders were compelled to form and articulate clearer visions of this; of what it means to be both Jewish and democratic. With the government's dissolution immediately following a breakdown over this issue, the question of Israel's future character is in the air, forming a backdrop to this election season.
What matters most is what happens immediately after the elections, when the decision is made as to which parties make up the next coalition. Will the next coalition be governed by the nationalistic extreme-right, advancing an exclusionary vision, based on a messianic, xenophobic worldview? Or will it be a progressive coalition, reflecting a modern, globalized, pragmatic Israel, anchored in humanistic values, Jewish values, advancing peace, equality, pluralism, tolerance and democracy?
American Jews who are not Israeli citizens don’t have the right to vote in Israeli elections, but that should not preclude them from influencing the state's future. Stuart Eisenstat, one of Washington’s key insiders and most respected Jewish activists, says Jewish Americans believe just that. He was recently recruited to help poll more than 40 Jewish communities worldwide for a study commissioned by the Israeli government on world Jewry’s attitude to the future of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
Describing the study's findings at a talk he recently gave in Washington, Eisenstat was unequivocal. First, he said, Diaspora Jews believe that Israel should not compromise its democratic values – like granting equality to minorities – to accommodate security threats or other constraints. Second, Diaspora Jews increasingly believe that the threats Israel is facing do not grant it immunity from criticism. Third, American Jews are becoming more assertive in addressing criticism about Israeli policies. They do it not only because they believe that Israel should consult with them on issues close to their hearts, whether relating to religious pluralism or to Jewish values such as tolerance, equality and peace, but also because they believe that “Israel’s character has significant influence on how Judaism is regarded around the world by Jews and non-Jews,” Eisenstat said.
Israel’s image is crucial for Jewish continuity in the Diaspora, he said, as well as for the security and wellbeing of Jews living outside Israel, “as we see in France and other countries.” Therefore, “we have a right to a say on these issues,” Eisenstat said, quoting Diaspora Jewish leaders he interviewed for the study.
The coming 96 days offer an opportunity for American Jews to not only exercise that right, but to do so at a time when what they say could make a profound difference.
During this election season, Jewish Americans have a chance to speak up publicly to support those in Israel who share their values and who share their vision of Israel. They have a vast range of tools to do so – traditional and new media, synagogue chains, and numerous Jewish organizations that resonate both in the United States and in Israel. By voicing their visions, Jewish Americans could contribute, indirectly and modestly as it may be, to a future Israel that is for them more a source of inspiration and pride, rather than discord and dissonance.
Ori Nir, formerly Haaretz's Washington correspondent, is Americans for Peace Now's director of communications and public outreach. Follow him on Twitter.