Paul Gross

Bari Weiss is right about the singular importance of freedom

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I subscribe to many, and so often take a few days or weeks to get to certain episodes. I tend to prioritize the more ‘news-y’ ones, the ones that relate to something happening right now, so I’m usually late to the episodes covering more general topics.

And so I only recently listened to Bari Weiss’s superb speech delivered in New York more than a month ago, and released as a recording on her ‘Honestly’ podcast.

She spoke with great erudition and emotion about the connection between Jewish flourishing and “freedom”. As she compellingly argued, when freedom is under attack, Jews are among the first victims. (And conversely, antisemitism is usually a sure sign that freedom writ large is threatened.)

One reason I enjoy listening to and reading Weiss, is that she’s among a vanishingly small number of American political commentators who aren’t afraid to alienate either side of the aisle. True to form, she states in her speech:

Freedom… is under siege here at home. By leftists who glorify terrorists, and by rightists who glorify tyrants.

And, with the US Presidential election less that six months away – with guaranteed repercussions for the whole world, and certainly for our little corner of it in the Middle East, I can’t help thinking that both major political parties have failed massively. Far too many prominent and influential Democrats are hopelessly morally confused in their response to a war between a democratic ally and mass-murdering, mass-raping, Nazi-inspired Jihadists.

President Biden is not in that camp of ‘useful idiot’ progressives, but (presumably with November in mind) his Administration has not always distanced itself from their talking points, and the fear of many is that a victory for Biden will mean a transition to Kamala Harris at some point in the four-year term. And there’s every reason to assume that a President Harris – who’s given little indication of having firm principles on anything, and certainly not on Israel – would be more inclined than Biden to bend to the will of the activist left.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party eschewed traditional pro-Israel conservatives like Nikki Haley in favor of a presidential candidate who is a declared admirer of autocrats and despots, attempted to subvert American democracy, and is threatening to abandon NATO. We can all understand why he’s viewed as a pro-Israel president, but it is unserious to think either Israel or American Jews would be well served by a Leader of the Free World who rejects the very concept of ‘the Free World’.

Now, Bari Weiss was talking mainly about America, and it’s tempting for Israelis to feel that the message is irrelevant to us. Freedom and liberalism are necessary for minorities to thrive, but here in Israel we Jews are the majority, right? Except that our prosperity is a consequence of our freedom. The founding fathers of Zionism, from Herzl to Weizmann, from Ben Gurion to Jabotinsky, envisaged a free Jewish state where non-Jews could live as equal citizens. This was also promised in our Declaration of Independence.

I regard the spontaneous mass movement to save Israeli democracy from Israel’s first post-liberal government as one of the great expressions of authentic Zionism.

When I interviewed Hungarians and Poles who’d fought against the growing authoritarianism in their countries, they expressed envy and admiration for how ordinary Israelis had gone to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in the name of freedom and democracy. So yes, Weiss’s coupling of freedom with Jewish flourishing is all-too relevant in Israel as well.

Pro-democracy demonstration by Israeli patriots.
(Picture taken by the writer.)

Another excellent American writer, James Kirchik, wrote today, in a New York Times op-ed:

As is always and everywhere the case, this burgeoning antisemitism is concomitant with a rising illiberalism.

In Israel, concomitant with a rising illiberalism is social unrest, economic downturn and – as warned by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and four separate communiques from IDF Military Intelligence – vulnerability to our enemies.

America’s two-party system presents Jewish voters there with a stark choice, neither one necessarily inspiring confidence. (For what it’s worth, Biden would be my choice – I’ve not changed my view of Trump since I wrote a blog just before the 2020 election describing him as singularly unfit for the office. And that was before his denial of the election results and the insanity of January 6.) In Israel, we have many parties, and the next election – date unknown, but very probably within 12 months if not six – could result in a number of different possible coalitions. Yet our choice is no less stark for all that. We can no less afford another government that rejects the Zionist promise of a democratic Jewish state, than American Jews can live with the success of either wokeism or Trumpism.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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