If an anti-Israel activist on the extreme Left criticizes Israeli policies (or even, Israel’s very existence), my response is likely to be: Meh.
If an anti-Israel activist on the extreme Right criticizes Israeli policies (or even, Israel’s very existence, and/or the existence of the Jewish people and Judaism), I will probably say: Ho hum.
If the New York Times and other media outlets train their hyper-vigilant moral microscopes on the Jewish state, and do so out of all proportion (though see the Thomas Friedman quote below; he gets it right), I will most likely say: So what else is new?
This time, it’s different.
This time, as the horror movie cliche would put it, the call is coming from within the house.
Within the house of beit Yisrael — the house of Israel, the Jewish people — itself.
The election of this current government of Israel, with its extreme right wing, racist, homophobic, and the-majority-of-American-Jewry-phobic elements has shaken the Jewish world — in a way that we have never seen.
Israel has endured right wing governments in the past. But, this time is different.
- There is serious talk about tinkering with the Law of Return, which bound all Jews together, and with them, their connection to Zion.
- There has been a proposed bill that would ban mixed prayer at the Kotel, and would cancel egalitarian prayer in the egalitarian section, and criminalize women who are dressed (according to ultra-Orthodox standards) “immodestly” — with a six month prison term and a NIS 10,000 ($2,900) fine. No, it isn’t happening now, but for how long can PM Netanyahu hold out against the more medieval forces in his coalition?
- There is serious talk about eviscerating the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court system — the Jewish State’s only real mechanism of checks and balances.
No. This cuts to the bone. Israelis know it as well; witness the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, including Orthodox Jews, who have taken to the streets of Israel’s cities in protest.
What are the calls that are coming from inside the house? American Jews — prominent American Jews.
Why? Because this goes way beyond the usual debates about what we euphemistically call ha-matzav, “the situation.” This is not about the Occupation and the settlements, about which there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides.
No. These are about existential threats — not to Israel’s security, but to the very soul and essence of Israel itself. These are threats to the core of Zionism.
To quote the late Rabbi David Hartman: “Israel is too important to leave to Israelis,” because Israel is the project of the entire Jewish people.
Who is blowing the shofar of vigilance?
- “An Open letter to Israel’s friends in North America,” in The Times of Israel, by Matti Friedman Yossi Klein-Halevi, and Daniel Gordis. Note, please: None of these authors are associated with the Left; they are notorious centrists, and Rabbi Gordis has been known to track center-right.
We are taking the unusual step of directly addressing you at a moment of acute crisis in Israel. We write with a sense of anguish and anxiety for the future of our country. All of us moved to Israel from North America and raised our children here. Between us are many decades of work as reporters, literary chroniclers and translators of Israeli reality for audiences abroad. We have explained and defended Israel against the campaign of distortions that seeks to turn the Jewish state into a pariah and will proudly continue to do so.
Today, though, protecting Israel also means defending it from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story.
- “We are liberal American Zionists. We stand with Israel’s protesters,” in the Washington Post, by Paul Berman, Martin Peretz, Michael Walzer, and Leon Wieseltier. Note, please: an interesting group of thinkers, whose views have spanned the center-left spectrum.
We are American liberals and liberal Zionists who have always supported Israel and have always regarded American support for Israel as a point of patriotic pride.
We have always known exactly why we hold those positions. We have seen in Israel an essential refuge for oppressed and persecuted Jews who have fled to the reestablished Jewish state from Europe, Russia, the larger Middle East, Africa and beyond. And we have seen in Israel an admirable project, still in the works, for a democratic and liberal society.
But Netanyahu’s new government has put those democratic, tolerant and rational principles under greater pressure than Israel has seen before.
- “All Israel is Responsible For Each Other,” Central Synagogue, sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. Rabbi Buchdahl is perhaps the most publicly visible pulpit rabbi in American liberal Judaism. Rabbi Buchdahl worries that concerned American Jews will simply turn away from Israel in despair or embarrassment, and urges congregants to support the Israeli and American organizations that share their pluralistic vision for Israel.
- “On That Distant Day,” The Jewish Review of Books, by Hillel Halkin. Halkin is a major public intellectual and literary figure in Israel, and a man whose politics track center-right. And yet:
…As I write these words in the second week of December, something very bad is happening. A former prime minister, currently on trial for graft and abuse of the public trust, his only demonstrated principles his own ambition and survival, has been voted back into office and is about to form—having driven every independent voice from a party in which he is now surrounded by political hacks and bootlickers—a coalition with four religious parties. One of these, ultra-Orthodox and Ashkenazi in leadership and rank and file, has traditionally devoted its efforts to promoting the power of its rabbis and procuring all it could from government budgets for its followers and their institutions. The second, which calls itself Sephardi, pursues similar goals; though its leadership is black-hat too, its base is religiously diverse. The third, described as “religious Zionist,” appeals to a knit-skullcap electorate and is hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs.
You want to know how bad it is? Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the ADL, and a man who could never have been accused of being soft on Israel, came out and said it. “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.” Abe Foxman!
It actually gets worse. How about this? “Leading US financial institute JPMorgan has warned of a growing risk of investing in Israel due to the new government’s far-reaching plans for overhauling the judicial system.” As in: not many people will want to invest in a country that has no independent judiciary.
Yes, this is bad. This is not about ideological disagreement. Israel is playing a very dangerous game with its economy.
Israel is playing a very dangerous game, as well, with its most important ally — the United States of America — and its unquestioned friend in the White House.
As Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times:
Biden is as pro-Israel in his gut as any president I have ever covered. He has also had a long and mutually respectful relationship with Netanyahu. So I can tell you that whatever Biden has to say about Israel comes from a place of real concern. It’s a concern that the radical transformation of Israel’s judicial system that Netanyahu’s ultranationalist, ultrareligious coalition is trying to slam through the Knesset could seriously damage Israel’s democracy and therefore its close ties to America and democracies everywhere.
But, worst of all: Israel is playing a very dangerous game with American Jews. It might take those allegiances for granted. It should not. If asked, most American Jews would probably agree with the tenets of liberal Zionism. That is the Jewish State that they will support, and not a Hebrew-speaking version of Hungary, Turkey, or God forbid, Iran.
Israeli leaders might simply rely on center and right-wing Orthodox Jews. Ignore Scarsdale and the Upper West Side; focus on Borough Park and Monsey to defend their policies. They are likely to discover that the ultra-Orthodox lack the necessary political clout to make a real difference.
Or, perhaps Israel should rely on Christian evangelicals to be their fan club. They will discover that younger evangelicals care less about Israel and Zionism than their elders do.
As for me, I am leaning in on Israel. Four years of Donald Trump did not sour me on America, and this current coalition will sour me neither on Israel or Zionism.
I am throwing my support behind those elements of Israeli society that are fighting for Zionism — real Zionism — and a heartfelt, open-minded, non-xenophobic Judaism for the Jewish state.
“Rabbi,” a character in a Hasidic tale says, “My son has greatly disappointed me. What do I do?”
“Love him more,” said the rabbi.
I am disappointed.
But, the throngs of Israelis who have taken to the streets — they have made me love Israel even more.