U.S. Jews Do Care About Israel's Democracy. We're Just a Little Busy Surviving

Our elderly are vulnerable to coronavirus, our synagogues are closed, our president is incompetent, our jobs and health are on the line. And now we're expected to save Israel’s democracy, too?

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Holocaust survivor Alice Rosenberg, self-isolated in her home due to coronavirus fears, speaks to a Jewish community volunteer delivering her meals. Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020
Holocaust survivor Alice Rosenberg, self-isolated in her home due to coronavirus fears, speaks to a Jewish community volunteer delivering her meals. Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020Credit: Jessie Wardarski,AP
David Zenlea
David Zenlea

Like most citizens of earth, American Jews are a little stressed right now.

Right around the time we’d normally be going to two dozen grocery stores to find those Kosher for Passover fruit jelly rings our grandparents really like, there’s a global pandemic threatening our health, jobs, and basic way of life. Also, since the vast majority of us were squarely in the "I’m with Her" camp, we’re acutely skeptical of our president’s ability to rise to this once-in-a-generation challenge. 

Apparently, though, there’s something else American Jews could be doing at this very moment: saving Israeli democracy. We’re shirking this duty, says Charles Dunst in a recent Haaretz opinion piece apparently headlined by my mother, because we "don’t care that Israel’s democracy is falling apart." 

"Our influential diaspora must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time," says Dunst, "and, in this case, address the coronavirus in our various homes while refusing to any longer stand by as Netanyahu takes every opportunity to erode Israel’s democratic norms." 

Yes, just like walking and chewing gum. I’m tempted to say Dunst doesn’t care that a disproportionate percentage of American Jews are elderly and thus particularly susceptible to COVID-19; that organizations like Jewish Family Services are struggling to deliver food and services to the most vulnerable; or that our synagogues, already facing declining membership and funding, are now closed for the foreseeable future.

Instead, I’ll assume he cares deeply about such things, but doesn’t have the bandwidth at this fraught moment to be clued into details distant from his reality. 

The National Guard wait for coronavirus testing patients at Glen Island Park, in New Rochelle, N.Y., where a synagogue is epicenter of an outbreak. March 13, 2020Credit: John Minchillo,AP

Yet this is, as Dunst notes, bigger than coronavirus. In recent years, American Jews have become accustomed not only to a resurgence of hatred from right-wing extremists (let’s call it the new old normal) but also frequent shaming and occasional delegitimization from the left, for whom our supposed whiteness and support of Israel goes beyond being insufficiently woke and ventures into a form of disloyalty. 

This despite the fact that Jews, unique among white, affluent American voters, consistently support left-leaning candidates and causes. Most (around 70 percent, in multiple polls) indeed feel connected to Israel, yet a similar majority remains implacably opposed to Donald Trump’s reelection, in spite (and in some corners because) of his unprecedented alignment with the Israeli right.

It’s also worth remembering that, in less chaotic times, mainstream American Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform Movement have taken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task for, among other things, legitimizing the racist Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party. 

Also unclear in Dunst’s criticism of American Jewish complacency is how, exactly, we are supposed to help effect a transformation of Israeli politics. From what I can tell following Israeli media, statements by American Jewish leaders rank in importance somewhere between Sara Netanyahu’s wardrobe and Eden Alene’s prospects in the Eurovision contest, whenever it actually takes place

No doubt, Israel’s slide toward authoritarianism is extremely concerning. And, surely, American Jews have a part to play—in our household the old blue Jewish National Fund tzedakah box has long since given way to financial support for the New Israel Fund and Haaretz. 

But the responsibility for saving Israel’s democracy lies first and foremost with the citizens of that democracy, as well as its courts and media. Your liberal Jewish brethren in the United States wish you well. Also, if you can spare any Kosher for Passover fruit rings, please send them our way. 

David Zenlea is a Detroit-based editor with a degree in Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland. He’s written for Tablet, Detroit Jewish News, Road & Track, Washingtonian magazine, and others. Twitter: @David_Zenlea

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