In the beginning, “pro-Israel” meant something clear and uncomplicated: supporting Israel’s miraculous establishment as the homeland of the Jewish people, on the heels of the horrors of the Holocaust, and defending Israel’s very right to exist and thrive, in the face of violent rejection of that young country by its neighbors.
After the 1967 War, the definition of “pro-Israel” began evolving. It gradually came to mean – for much of the American Jewish establishment – defending Israel from all criticism and pressure, even if this meant in effect supporting policies designed to cement Israeli control over the lands Israel conquered in 1967, and even if it meant turning a blind eye, especially in recent years, to an escalation in illiberal policies targeting Israeli civil society itself. And it came to mean demanding that American political leaders and elected officials adopt this same approach to “pro-Israel,” or risk finding themselves labeled “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.”
A direct line exists between this “pro-Israel” illiberal orthodoxy and the positioning of too many in the Jewish establishment today.
America is witnessing the dawning of a dangerous new political order, encompassing the President-elect, his top advisors and surrogates, and his vocal “alt-right” supporters. This new political order is unabashedly extremist and illiberal in coloration: anti-democratic, anti-immigrant, racist, Islamophobic, misogynist and often anti-Semitic – characteristics that are antithetical to Jewish values and to the safety and security of every vulnerable minority in the United States, including Jews. In the face of this new political order, many Jewish establishment organizations and their leaders are remaining silent or standing up in support. Why? Because they believe this new political order is aligned (for its own reasons) with the same “pro-Israel” illiberal orthodoxy that they endorse.
Make no mistake: for too many in the right-wing Jewish establishment, “pro-Israel” has developed into an illiberal ideology in its own right. That ideology – sympathetic to a worldview that prioritizes land over peace, settlements over security, and permanent control of the West Bank over democratic norms – has more in common with American racists and proto-fascists than with Jewish or American values. There is little distance to travel, politically, from defending racist reactionaries in Israel and making common cause with their American equivalents.
Growing up in the post-Holocaust era, many of us are taught that Jews, in every country, are the canaries in the coal mine. We are taught that demanding zero tolerance for anti-Semitism is not just about what is good for the Jews. Rather, it is about never forgetting – and never allowing the world to forget – what anti-Semitism augurs. Likewise, we are taught that we must never stop fighting for all manner of civil rights, because coded into our DNA, as Jews, is the sure knowledge that if such rights are not protected for all, they are protected for none.
The credibility of a large part of the American Jewish establishment is now collapsing under the weight of these contradictions. As synagogue congregations and rabbis across the country are struggling with how to respond to the hatred unleashed by the results of last week’s elections, too many Jewish organizations and leaders are choosing to ignore the lessons of thousands of years of Jewish history. In doing so, they are desecrating the memory of every Jew who has suffered at the hands of anti-Semites. They are betraying Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Jewish values expressed within it. And they are complicit in the growth of a political movement that today endangers the safety and survival of vulnerable people – including Jews – everywhere.
The American Jewish and Israeli pro-peace Left – the embodiment of what it means to be genuinely “pro-Israel” – has long said that supporting Israel means opposing settlements and the occupation. Perhaps now people will begin to realize that this was never merely a slogan. Jewish values are incompatible with occupation. Defending human rights and civil rights is incompatible with normalizing settlements. Supporting civil liberties is incompatible with delegitimizing non-violent activism against Israeli policies.
And as we are witnessing today, compromising core Jewish values in order to absolve Israel of responsibility for bad policies comes at a high cost, both for Israel and for American Jews.
Most American Jews see the truth. That is why polls consistently show that most American Jews don’t support settlements and the occupation, just as most American Jews are no doubt appalled by the new political order taking shape and are outraged at the positioning of some Jewish leaders today.
To be clear: some Jewish leaders, from across the spectrum of Jewish organizations holding different political views and carrying different missions, have taken a stand against this new political order. For this they deserve credit and support. But nobody in the Jewish establishment can be permitted to make common cause, in all of our names and for the sake of a vision of Israel’s future that we reject, with the enemies of everything we hold dear. We must fight for our Jewish and American values and apply them consistently, both with the respect to what is happening in the United States and what is happening in Israel. The silence of too many in the right-wing Jewish establishment today underscores how, for American Jews, the two are inextricably linked.