In the wake of the recent elections, Israel has fallen into political crisis that threatens to tear the country apart. Matti Friedman wrote a sobering piece in Tablet that the political crisis in Israel is “not threatening ‘democracy,’ or the ‘peace process,’ which hasn’t existed for more than 20 years. It’s dismantling the ability of Israeli Jews, and possibly the Jewish world as a whole, to act together in our common interests.” How should American Jews respond to these developments?
- Adopt a “they are us” mindset
American Jews who criticize Israel often come across like they are speaking about an alien nation, not their beloved state of the Jewish people. To be sure, many (but not all) of these critics really do love Israel. They should temper their criticism just as thoughtful people do when someone they love, such as a family member, disappoints them. American Jews should think of Israel’s problems as our own, like troubles in our own families.
Unlike Israel, the American Jewish community is not a sovereign country. Mainstream American Jews can go their whole lives ignoring the Haredi Jews living blocks away who see the role of women very differently from how they see it. Likewise, they need not encounter the radical right-wingers who think Israel should annex every inch of the West Bank.
Israelis, by contrast, must be in an ongoing political dialogue with each other over the nature of the state. They must share the public space and compromise with people very different from themselves. Israel is the sovereign expression of the Jewish people — they are us, but with land, a parliament, and an army. If the Kotel were in the US and belonged to American Jews, does anyone think the fight for who prays there would be any less contested than it is in Israel? Othering Israel is a denial of our own peoplehood.
What’s more, American Jews have played an indispensable role in facilitating the emigration of Jews to Israel from around the world. In 1987, as a student activist, I organized buses to Washington to the largest American Jewish protest in history demanding the release of Soviet Jews. Many of the emigres American Jews helped bring to Israel do not share their progressive political leanings. Russian-speaking Jews may have even shifted rightward the political balance in Israel. Israeli “Jews of color” from all over the world tend to be politically rightwing. Some of them voted for Ben Gvir. Not a few American Jews from the same part of the world would have as well. American Jews own a share of not just Israel’s triumphs, but also its failures. Adopting the “they are us” posture conditions American Jews to engage Israel and Israelis in a thoughtful, sympathetic manner that is more likely to be heard and less likely to drive a permanent wedge in the relationship.
2. Curb the heated moral rhetoric
Now is not the time for more open letters and petitions denouncing demagogic figures in Israel. Most Jews regard Ben Gvir as despicable. No one is saying that Temple Beth Shalom of Pico-Robertson should invite the Israeli extremist to speak at its spring shabbaton (he wouldn’t come anyway).
The American Jewish moral posture — our impulse to condemn hateful rhetoric and render moral judgment — is a communal strategy forged in the civil rights era meant to push scary antisemitic voices to the margins. It has its time and place. But we don’t always have to be on condemnation footing. It is not even always the best way to counter domestic antisemitism, and it does nothing to de-platform duly elected Israeli officials, no matter how loathsome they are. Restraining our moral impulses will not “normalize” these extreme voices. They have already been normalized, unfortunately, by the thousands of people who voted them into power.
Moreover, constantly expressing our disgust can be heard by ordinary Israelis — the people who actually vote in Israel — as lack of support for the state in trying times. It will do nothing to curb the appeal of the radicals in the eyes of voters and may even do the opposite. Moreover, when rabbis and other American Jewish leaders blanketly denounce political developments in Israel, they risk alienating from the Jewish state many American Jews who may never have visited the country, let alone studied there for a year during rabbinical school.
In the coming months, these dark forces in the Israeli government will likely make some highly objectionable political and policy moves, such as advancing proposals to override the Israeli Supreme Court or undercutting gay rights. Jewish leaders should reserve their moral thunder for responding to particular policies or actions.
3. Engage with moderates in Israel
There are moderate Israelis on the center-left and center-right trying to build a sustainable politics and civil society in Israel. American Jews should spend less time condemning the bad guys and more time supporting the good guys. They need and deserve our partnership. Bring these moderates to speak at your meetings and conferences. Make common cause when possible. Leave the political trench warfare to moderate Israelis on the ground.
These are challenging times in Israel. Engage thoughtfully. After all, they are us.