Paul Gross

Dear Diaspora Bibi-supporters: This time it’s different

The Times of Israel webinar taking place in a couple of weeks, with Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Daniel Gordis, is a great initiative, and much needed in the current climate. The challenge for Diaspora Jews of supporting Israel while opposing its government is not a simple one. (I attempted to address it myself in a blog several months, but I’ll also be joining the webinar to learn from these three brilliant men.)

That the premise of the webinar rubs some people up the wrong way is unsurprising. The idea that Diaspora Jews should be encouraged to oppose the democratically elected government of Israel is appropriately contentious, and becomes understandable only once you appreciate the magnitude of the threat this government poses; that this is not a matter of left vs. right; and that the anti-judicial “reform” position of the protest movement commands majority support in the country.

A number of Diaspora Jewish activists on social media (some friends and acquaintances among them) seem concerned or disturbed by the idea of this webinar. And it is to them that I address my remarks here.

I get it. Support for Israel is hard-wired into your brains; it’s instinctive, axiomatic. And by the same token, criticism of Israel – particularly criticism which claims the Israeli government is acting against democracy or human rights – sets off alarm bells.

I get it.

For much of my twenties I was involved in Israel advocacy in the UK; as a student at a notably anti-Israel university, and professionally – both with the Jewish community, and latterly working for the Israeli Embassy in London. My anti-Israel radar was finely tuned. Hearing or reading criticism of Israel, I would automatically attempt to sniff out unfairness, tendentious reporting, or antisemitism. All-too-often, particularly when the source was left-wing students or certain ‘progressive’ media outlets, the “criticism” stank to high heaven.

Many of you knee-jerk supporters of Netanyahu in the Diaspora are operating from this mindset. It’s difficult for you to bring yourselves to join in the protests against an elected government of Israel – even though those protest are unprecedented in their size and endurance; and even though (according to consistent polling) a majority of Israelis oppose the judicial overhaul, including over a third of those who voted for parties in the governing coalition.

But here’s the thing. I suspect most of you would in fact be siding with the protesters were it not for this reflex refusal to criticize Israeli governments. I trust your basic moral instincts.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine this is nothing to do with Israel. Just imagine a country where the long-time leader is on trial for corruption. This same leader then abandons his own career-long support for judicial independence and seeks to weaken the judiciary’s power. That alone would probably be enough to have you calling for his removal from office. But once re-elected, he empowers ideologues who have long desired the removal of checks-and-balances on the government’s power, believing democracy to be nothing more than majority rule. He also brings into his government previously ostracized far-right racists, with a history of violence against minorities.

If this was a description of any other country, where would your sympathies lie? With the government, democratically elected but working to disfigure the very nature of their democracy? Or with the record numbers of citizens protesting weekly across the country, flying the country’s flag, singing its national anthem, and holding aloft its Declaration of Independence?

As I said, I really do understand where your discomfort is coming from, but you need to get it into your heads that we are no longer in the old ‘left vs. right’ paradigm. That should be obvious from the very fact that the likes of Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Daniel Gordis – who’ve written hundreds of thousands of words between them debunking anti-Israel ignorance and lies – are today calling on Diaspora Jews to take a stand against the Israeli government. Today’s ideological battle is not about where one stands on settlements; or who to blame for the absence of a peace process. It’s about competing notions of just what Israel should be: a Jewish nation-state, run according to liberal democratic principles; or a Jewish state where democracy is applicable only so far as it does not clash with an illiberal Jewish nationalism. This is about whether Israel will continue to be a democracy like the UK and the United States, or transition to the “democracy” of a Hungary or Turkey.

You know those “Zionism equals Racism” slogans you’ve had to confront on campuses and demonstrations? Well this government contains a number of ministers who agree with that slogan! The Israel you’ve spent years defending from slander and demonization – the Israel founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence – is the Israel of the protest movement, not of this government.

You live in liberal democratic countries, which value the rule of law and the protection of minority rights. Join the fight for an Israel that does the same.

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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