For many years, liberal American Jews could have their cake and eat it too. They were at the forefront of the fight for progressive values at home, but when it came to Israel, they checked their liberalism at the front door, as Peter Beinart put it. We don’t tell the Israeli people what to do, they said. Israel is a democracy, the Israeli people made their choice, and whoever it is, and no matter what they do, we will support them.
Well, the shoe is on the other foot now, and liberal Jews in America are getting a taste of their own medicine. The government of Israel and many of its citizens are fawning over Donald Trump’s new administration. Some are doing so because it fits their ideology, but others are telling themselves that America is a democracy, Americans have made their choice, and whoever it is, and no matter what they do Israel will support them. Even if they turn against the Jews themselves.
As they feel their stomachs turn, liberal American Jews can finally understand what it has felt like for their Israeli counterparts to watch the American Jewish establishment back Israeli government policies that were, in their eyes, immoral and self-destructive. How disconcerting it was to see people who are champions of equality and civil rights at home kowtow to governments that represented quite the opposite in Israel. How by doing so they were unwitting accomplices to policies they would find abhorrent if they were being implemented in their own backyard.
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I’m not even talking about occupation. Take Donald Trump’s widely reported harangues in his meeting with news executives on Monday, in which he lambasted the “crooked” press for their coverage of him and his campaign. Think what went through the minds of most liberal Americans as they read these reports: how demeaning it is for a president-elect to stoop to this level, how delusional of him to ignore the fact that without the “dishonest” press he would never have been made president in the first place, how vain he is to devote so much time and energy to lambasting the press when he should be making sure his transition is in place, how utterly clueless he must be about the function of a free press in a democratic society. And so on.
But this is vintage Benjamin Netanyahu. This is exactly what he has been doing for months now, and in spades. Calling in Israeli news outlets, one after another, to berate them for hours about their unfair coverage, their propensity to invent and inflate stories about him and their continuing disregard for his immeasurable achievements. You think Trump’s tweets about the Hamilton protest or the New York Times’ coverage are bad? You should hear or read Netanyahu’s rambling reactions to news stories about him in which he trashes respectable journalists with concocted allegations but refrains from responding to the specific claims made against him.
For the past few years, liberal American Jews have turned a blind eye to reports from Israel that Netanyahu and his government were becoming more ethnocentric and less inclusive, more nationalistic and less pluralistic, more repressive and less democratic, more demagogic and less levelheaded. But they either weren’t bothered by them or were eager to accept the narrative offered by Netanyahu’s front men and women that this was all some kind of sinister agitprop carried out by malevolent BDS-supporting enemies of Israel. Which is what some Israelis are telling themselves now as they hear reports of Trump’s questionable cabinet picks, white nationalist surroundings and ominous stirrings of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism. It’s all propaganda of liberal American Jews trying to undermine Trump’s pro-Israel agenda, they’re being told.
Perhaps now, as they watch their own government grow ominously darker, liberal American Jews will understand how they’ve been bamboozled about Israel. Alongside their understandable and even desirable support for Israel against some of the real dangers it faces, perhaps now they will be less indifferent to the steady corrosion of Israel’s democratic underpinnings, as Netanyahu and his coalition steadily chip away at the Supreme Court and the rule of law. Perhaps now, when they hear the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union being portrayed as “hate groups” by Trump supporters, they will revisit the right-wing vilification of bodies such as the New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence. Perhaps now they will finally face the possibility that even if it is true that Palestinians are largely responsible for the absence of a peace process, 50 years of occupation are consuming Israel from within, devouring the innards of the liberal and enlightened Israel they have clung to, just as Israeli leftists have been warning for decades.
Many liberal Israelis are embarrassed right now by their government’s uncritical embrace of Trump and his crazies, just as liberal American Jews should have been embarrassed, but weren’t, by the Jewish establishment’s wholesale support for Netanyahu, despite his steady descent into hyper-nationalism and his partnership with the same kind of anti-liberal ethnocentric supremacists that flank Trump’s right. True, Trump seems to be going at it at supersonic speed while Netanyahu has been, as always, careful and methodical: but the darkness that Steve Bannon worships has been creeping into Israel’s soul as well.
Dismayed by Trump’s very election and horrified at the sinister forces that are following in his footsteps, liberal Jews are likely to turn inwards and to worry about themselves. Unlike their Orthodox co-religionists, many of them weren’t interested in Israel in the first place, and those who were may be thinking that the fight over their own home and safety should now take priority. It is a natural instinct that cannot be faulted.
Nonetheless, if there is a silver lining in the dark clouds gathering all around us it is this: never before has there been such a golden opportunity for liberal Jews in both countries to understand each other, to reach out to each other, to make common cause with each other, to support each other in time of need. Israeli Jews on the center and left, long insulated from, and indifferent to, their brethren in the Diaspora, may come to identify and empathize with them like never before. Liberal American Jews, long accustomed to unblinking support for Israeli governments no matter what their conduct is, may become more discerning and critical, on the one hand, and more sympathetic to the people who share their ideals and beliefs, on the other.
The fierce battle over women’s prayers at the Western Wall, in particular, and religious pluralism, in general, is a case in point. The Reform movement has invested time and energy in reaching an accommodation with the Israeli government, willfully ignoring the fact that Netanyahu is completely dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties, who won’t give an inch. But their struggle has failed to engage Israeli public opinion, which makes no connection between equality at the Wall and its own concerns about Israel’s stifling theocracy. A new partnership between liberal Jews in both countries could encompass both the American quest for recognition and pluralism and the Israeli struggle for maintaining constitutional freedoms and against the ongoing occupation.
An Israel that seems to be falling in line with an increasingly xenophobic and ethnocentric America will sever its already strained ties with liberal American Jews and Israel. But an open and liberal Israel could be a source of inspiration, if not refuge, for American Jews during the trying four if not eight years that lay ahead. Both sides have a vested interest and could have a significant role to play in trying to make it so.
Relations between American Jews and Israelis have traditionally been lopsided: American Jews supported Israel no matter what, and Israeli Jews couldn’t care less. Both paradigms must change now, in the age of Trump. Not only should American Jews heed Hillel’s maxim “don’t do unto others what is hateful to you” and stop supporting Israeli governments that advance values they detest – or at least make their support contingent on specific policy demands – but they should actively support and encourage those elements in Israeli society that share their worries and concerns. By doing so, they might help jolt Israel’s liberal wing out of its lethargic death spiral and spur it into rejoining the battle for the soul of the Jewish state.
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