Opinion |

Israel’s Message to U.S. Jews: If You’re Against the Occupation, You’re Not Welcome

With the Jewish Agency now surrendering to the extremist right-wing witch hunt, more and more of Israel’s institutions are closing their doors to U.S. Jewish progressives. We must refuse to be excluded

Libby Lenkinski
Libby Lenkinski
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Sumud: Freedom Camp in the West Bank, 19 May 2017
Sumud: Freedom Camp set up by Diaspora Jews in partnership with Palestinians in the West Bank, 19 May 2017Credit: Gili Getz
Libby Lenkinski
Libby Lenkinski

My Saba, Yoseph Amit, made aliyah as a young man from Germany in the late 1930s. He was escaping the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe, and aspiring toward what he called then, in the Hashomer Hatzair Youth youth movement, Hagshama Atzmit, self-realization, in Zion.

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Would my Saba, a devoted Socialist Zionist pioneer who left everything he knew to build kibbutzim and create a new life, be accepted by today’s institutions in Israel? Or would he be targeted by this Israeli government as an undesirable for his left-wing opinions?

This week the Jewish Agency for Israel withdrew its funding for Achvat Amim, a Masa-funded program overseen by Hashomer Hatzair based on spurious allegations by a shadowy group called Ad Kan.

Ad Kan is an arm of the most extreme elements of Israel’s settler movement. It has been called "Israel’s volunteer thought police," a group that recruits Israelis to become citizen-spies, reporting on their fellow Israelis in a two-bit McCarthyist attempt to weed out anyone who doesn’t fit their vision of an Israel for Jews only.

Armed with hidden cameras and microphones, Ad Kan members lie about their identities, join left-wing organizations and try to capture "gotcha" moments with members. Other times they scrutinize and “investigate” individual activists and then offer their deceptive material to Israel’s mainstream news.

In this case, Ad Kan was incensed that Jews would participate in nonviolent activism alongside Palestinians in the West Bank. So they got to work identifying individual activists to name, shame and blame.

Far-right groups Im Tirtzu's banner with the slogan: "The people against [left-wing] moles" above Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, December 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

This is the settler right’s tried and true tactic: guilt by association. Ad Kan and other extreme right-wing organizations like it understand that when the public conversation focuses on how policies like the occupation affect people’s lives, they lose. So instead, they create bogeymen and come up with convoluted chains of association among them to imply some nefarious cabal.

Sound familiar? These are the same types of fantasies about power and treason that anti-Semites used for generations to target Jews. It’s eerily similar to the implication of the cartoon posted by Yair Netanyahu to Facebook – for which he has been embraced by neo-Nazis in America.

Ad Kan and its settler right allies, like Im Tirtzu and the Samaria Settlers' Committee, have been reading from the same anti-Semitic playbook for some time. In 2009, Im Tirtzu created a campaign designed to topple the New Israel Fund using imagery of NIF’s then-president, Naomi Chazan, with a horn on her head.

The attacks on NIF by Im Tirtzu and others did nothing to hamper our activities to promote democracy and equality for all Israelis. But this time, guilt-by-association tactics led the Jewish Agency to withdraw funding from a Hashomer Hatzair-affiliated volunteer program.

This is a disappointing surrender to the settler right, and not just because of its underhanded and dishonest tactics. These decisions determine what kind of Zionism is acceptable in today’s Israel, and the answer is far narrower than ever before in Israel’s history. The incremental witch-hunting that attempts to mark and silence undesirable elements often starts in organizations like Ad Kan. But dropping the Hashomer Hatzair program is just the latest example of how these actions influence policy.

A young Israeli holds a banner reading "Peace" in Hebrew during a mass demonstration against 50 years of occupation titled "Two States - One Hope" in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. May 27, 2017 Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

There can be no mistake: the Jewish Agency canceled its support of Achvat Amim because of the leaders’ progressive political perspective – though plenty of right-wing programs receive Jewish Agency support.

If these institutions insist on one narrow and far-right political perspective, they shouldn’t be surprised when their participant pool dries up. Young American Jews are overwhelmingly progressive. They are committed to an Israel in which Jews’ right to self-realization must not come at the expense of others’ same rights; they believe that we can and must always dream of a better future and work to create it.

And rather than embrace them, Israeli institutions are closing their doors. Daniel Roth and Karen Isaacs, who founded Achvat Amim, are two aspirational Zionists who defy the trend of turning away from Israel. They made aliya directly out of their commitment to a better future in Israel and their contemporary Hagshama Atzmit. They should be seen as among the great examples of the success of the Zionist project.

In fact, before cowing to Ad Kan’s smear campaign, Daniel and Karen’s now-defunded program was held up as an example by the Jewish Agency, which surely must know that American Jews will stop participating in its programs if it does not provide a place for progressives too. Now, they are told to shut up and sit down – and, underneath it, to get out.

Hashomer Hatzair members on a pre-state train bound for Palestine: would they be targeted as left-wing undesirables by today's Israel?Credit: Hashomer Hatzair archives, Givat Haviva

You can’t curate away the truth. American Jews are not blind, though these government-sponsored programs may try to keep the blinders on. American Jews can see the occupation; half of young American Jews believe settlements are hurting prospects for peace. No amount of censorship will stop this. Instead, these institutions are closing the doors to every authentic access point that young (and older) American Jews have to engage with Israel.

I want to ask my Saba Yoseph what he dreamed of when he left his home to go to Palestine as a pioneer in the 1930s. We have never had this conversation, and my mother, also a Shomeret, never had it either. Saba Yoseph died in 1948 defending Israel in the War of Independence. My mother was born in the kibbutz that he helped found just a few months later. But knowing that he was raised in Hashomer Hatzair, I know that included in his ideology, as is included in mine, is the core concept of Achvat Amim: Solidarity Among Nations. I know it meant something different to him – given the changes in the world and in Israel – but Israel was built by Zionists with a variety of ideologies and his was a left-wing one.

We cannot allow a small group of radical extremists to define what it means to be Zionist, or to be an acceptable part of Israeli society. If Israel’s institutions now turn their backs on Daniel and Karen, on their program and all their participants – past, present, and future – whose aspirational Zionism is based upon solidarity among nations, not racist and exclusionary ideologies, would those institutions also turn their backs on Saba Yoseph? And more importantly, will there be anything left of the Zionist dream that my children and grandchildren will be able to connect to?

Libby Lenkinski is the Vice President for Public Engagement at New Israel Fund and the Board Chair for Hashomer Hatzair North America.

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