Deborah Waxman

A Clarion Call against Ethnonatioanlism

Recently I joined hundreds of fellow American rabbinic colleagues in signing a letter protesting the most hardline government in Israel’s history and pledging not to invite its most extreme cabinet ministers, including Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich, into our congregations and organizations.

Was the letter an exercise in empty symbolism, as these kinds of letters sometimes turn out to be? Not at all. This letter, along with the growing number of statements of protest from many quarters of the Jewish community, is a clarion call. These statements communicate that this government and what it espouses are not normal and should not be normalized. They seize the opportunity to reassert the kind of Zionism championed by Justice Louis Brandeis, who equated Zionism with American democracy, and who believed in a Zionism dedicated to giving social justice and democratic values expanded expression. They give rabbis and other leaders platforms to assert the legitimacy and potency of Jewish life in the diaspora and of the values we hold dear—for the sake of American Jews, for the sake of Israel as a democratic society nurturing the potential of all its citizens, for the sake of democracy writ large.

Prior to the 2022 U.S. mid-term elections, I wrote about how pluralism, which affirms the existence of diverse and changing political and religious views and varied lifestyles, is closely intertwined with democracy, and that ethnonationalism is a grave threat to both. I argued that all Americans must fight hard to preserve and vitalize democracy. I particularly had in mind the widespread promotion of a totalizing Christian nationalist ideology that limits the autonomy of anyone who is not white, straight, cisgender, evangelical or Catholic, or male. The threat felt particularly acute in my home state of Pennsylvania, where the Jewish Democratic candidate for governor—and eventual victor—was repeatedly subjected to antisemitic dog whistles by his overtly Christian nationalist Republican opponent and his proxies. Like many Pennsylvanians and Americans, I breathed a sigh of relief after Election Day — yet the threats posed to pluralism and American democracy remain real.

If ethnonationalism is bad for Jews as a minority in the diaspora, then ethnonationalism practiced when Jews are the majority holding state power is equally problematic. This syllogism is more than about logical consistency. It is about affirming a commitment to human rights as a Jewish value regardless of location. 

Some traditional or nationalist Jews insist that a commitment to human rights is not a Jewish value. Liberal Jews rebut them by pointing to the opening verses of Genesis, which assert that every individual is created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We apply this particular Jewish teaching toward the universal end of liberty, both individual and collective. And our commitment to democracy emerges from our study of history, which suggests that, since the Enlightenment, democratic societies have been the most hospitable places for Jewish citizens both to tend to internal communal needs and to contribute to broader society.

Liberal American Jews care deeply about the existence of Israel and the security and well-being of its residents. We resonate deeply with the commitments in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

The State of Israel… will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace and envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and others in the new Israeli cabinet are Orthodox Jewish supremacists who seek to dismantle religious pluralism along with egalitarianism, democratic practice and basic human rights—all hallmarks of liberal Judaism’s ever-evolving efforts over the last three hundred years to balance Jewish particularism and universal values. The anti-democratic promises and early actions of the new Israeli government are of deep concern to an overwhelming majority of American Jews. This includes longstanding critics on the left and also such fierce defenders of Israel as former Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman, who told the Jerusalem Post, “I’ve always said that [my support of Israel] is unconditional, but it’s conditional. I don’t think that it’s a horrific condition to say: ‘I love Israel and I want to love Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that respects pluralism.’ If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

The results of Israel’s most recent election have precipitated an almost unimaginable disruption in the mainstream of the liberal American Jewish community. American Jews dwelling in the diaspora hold no power in Israel, but we can exercise influence. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders must clearly articulate our values and powerfully communicate our vision. We do this by signing onto letters, by supporting NGOs on the ground in Israel fighting for a shared democratic society, by communicating our concerns and aspirations to our elected officials, and by other means that will emerge in the coming months. Persuasion is the primary strategy of a democratic society, not spreading misinformation or coercion. We must exert ourselves to make our vision sufficiently compelling that it will mobilize a majority of American Jews to fight against ethnonationalism and for democracy at home and around the world— including Israel.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman
About the Author
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism.