An Open Letter to an Israeli Friend

Dear Plonit,

It didn’t take long. About an hour after Prime Minister Netanyahu posted a message on his Facebook page warning of the “droves” of voting Arabs, a college student former congregant of mine texted me and asked if I supported Netanyahu’s “race baiting” statement. I phoned the kid and hemmed and hawed for a while – was it “race-baiting,” ordinary fear-mongering, or just aggressive electioneering? – but finally I was forced to admit that it was appalling. Will you say that publicly? he demanded. Disavow the Israeli Prime Minister? Write an op-ed in the local paper? If not, why not?

This is my problem Many, perhaps most, of my younger congregants think that the Prime Minister of Israel is a demagogue, at best. It’s a problem I share with almost every non-Orthodox rabbi I know. We’ve spent our careers defending Israel. We fight the propaganda fight every day, in our local communities, on college campuses, in the media. We provide context. Historical accuracy. Truth. Balance. We acknowledge the recent anti-Israel, anti-Semitic onslaught we’re all facing, so we fight harder. We avoid publicly criticizing Israel even when we disagree deeply because we don’t want our voices exploited, our words taken out of context and used as props for the BDS movement. Yet there it is – like the ghost of Christmas future, or more like a dybbuk. The next generation, our students, who look at Israel and see what they perceive as racism, apartheid, occupation.

I understand that these are strong words, and you and I know they’re dreadfully misleading in Israel’s context. Netanyahu’s signaling for anti-Arab votes isn’t the same as George Wallace’s call for segregation. Jews and Arabs have been fighting a hundred year war in Israel, and it’s natural that tribal animosities would affect the politics of both communities. Israel’s military policies in the West Bank are governed by security issues, not a racist ideology a la apartheid. And while we’d both agree that Israel’s domination of the West Bank constitutes an occupation (though some would disagree), it’s not as if Israel hasn’t made several attempts to rid itself of most of those territories.

So, yes, racism, occupation, apartheid – these are inflammatory, distorting words. And yet – here is where we have to be truthful, and open up a serious dialogue, one we’ve avoided. You and I know there’s a percentage of the Israeli population that cares about land much more than it cares about democracy and human rights – and for nationalistic or religious or racial reasons, not for security reasons. American rabbis are acquainted with Israelis who hold these views; we meet them on our trips and missions. They talk openly about expulsions, or shifting borders against the will of local Arabs. They’re not uncomfortable denying Palestinians the right to vote. These are the people Netanyahu summoned when he made his anti-Arab plea, and when he pledged to block a Palestinian State. And they responded, and put him over the top.

So, no, of course Israel is not an apartheid, racist state that glories in occupation. These are libels. But here’s our problem. The Prime Minister courted voters who wouldn’t be unhappy if no Arabs voted – who don’t see a legitimate place for Arabs in Israel. These people have a voice in the Israeli government.

Which brings me to my suggestion. We (Israeli and American Jews) have to engage in a serious, rigorous ethical conversation about democracy, war and peace, and minority rights. What is the proper, Jewish, ethical response when a Jewish majority faces an ethnic minority that doesn’t share its vision of the homeland? What is the Jewish ethical imperative regarding the Palestinians in the West Bank? When, precisely, is a governing Jewish majority allowed to circumvent the political rights of the minority? What is the place for strangers in an ethical Jewish country? I’m not asking for talking points or advocacy tips, but reasoned, moral positions.

What do you think? It would be fascinating to compare answers to these questions among Israeli and American Jews, or among older and younger Jews. Where would we differ? Where would we find common ground? And why?

As you know, our national Jewish organizations have not been helpful in encouraging this conversation. Instinctively pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, ADL, and the Federations back Israel on nearly every issue. J Street is still evolving, but is set up as a competing political lobby, not a think tank. In other words, we’re very well organized to fight political battles, but there’s not much opportunity to talk to each other, to learn.

I’m afraid if we don’t begin this dialogue, we’ll lose much of the next generation. We need to hear their ethical concerns, and they need to hear our responses – which must be equally grounded in ethics. We’ve taught them that Israel and the United States share essential values. But, frankly, they’re not so sure, and after Netanyahu’s latest remarks they’re even less sure. So tell us – and them — what you’re thinking. What ethical values can and should govern the policies of a Jewish state? I look forward to hearing from you.

Kol Tuv,


About the Author
Phillip is the West Coast Vice President for Shalom Hartman of North America. He has published six books, including four novels, most recently Silwan, a murder mystery. He has also published hundreds of articles and opinions pieces in dozens of journals. Phillip is married to Rabbi Susan Freeman, and has two sons, Benjamin and Ilan.