In her recent piece in Ha’aretz, Dina Kraft reported that many older progressive Jews across North America and “not only millennials” are increasingly disillusioned by what they view as Israel’s democratic descent and are turning away. While I wholeheartedly share the concerns of progressive Jews around the world, I have difficulty empathizing with those who seek to distance themselves – as if, from the moment of Israel’s establishment, this has ever been a realistic Jewish option.
Furthermore, at a time of profound democratic disruption in far longer-established, richer, and more secure democracies, most notably the United States, I would hope for greater circumspection and a more nuanced examination of Israel’s particular democratic circumstances and track record, warts and all. After all, when progressive American Jews quite rightly oppose the heartless separation of young child immigrants from their desperate parents at America’s borders, they are condemning the policy, not the idea of America. Likewise, when turning their attention to Israel – as I call on every Jew to do today and every day – that opposition should be framed as criticism of specific policies and not of Israel per se.
But beyond the understandable disappointment of progressive Jews around the world, how can this worrying trend of disengagement from Israel be explained and addressed?
First, just like many disillusioned Jewish-Israeli liberals and, incidentally, much of the international democratic community, many progressive Jews have an entirely unrealistic view of Israel’s democratic trajectory. In my recent book, A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel, I sought to demonstrate that while Israel was founded as a democracy – which was in and of itself not a given and should be seen as a noteworthy achievement – Israel never was, nor could it ever have realistically been, a “mature” liberal democracy. Indeed, during the first decades, Israel was to all intents and purposes a “one-party democracy,” in other words, not very democratic at all. Viewed more realistically, Israel is, even at this time of democratic crisis and setbacks, far more democratic than at its founding and, arguably, any time since.
Second, and again without giving Israel a free pass on any of its shortcomings, too many liberal critics, both at home and abroad, underestimate or dismiss the distinct society-building challenges that Israel faces. The struggle to shape the kind of just and inclusive society to which many Israelis genuinely aspire is being conducted in the scolding cauldron that is the Middle East. Along with consideration of the harsh regional realities, it is disingenuous to judge Israel’s democratic struggles without candid consideration of the corrosive consequences for inter-group relations of the ongoing conflict, unresolved borders, and profound disagreement among Israelis regarding primary sources of authority and Israel’s definition of statehood.
In actual fact, given Israel’s traumatic past and tortured present, Israeli democracy is, overall, doing considerably better than might be expected, though, of course, much less well than is required. Looking around the democratic world today, it is not clear that the same can be said of many far longer-established and richer democracies operating in far more favorable geopolitical circumstances.
Third, some progressive Jews around the world, along with some Jewish-Israelis, are simply unwilling to come to terms with the dirty work that maintaining statehood anywhere in our dangerous world invariably demands. In this sense, Israel – the realization of Jewish sovereignty and unprecedented Jewish power – represents the most fundamental challenge to “traditional” Jewish values that were forged in the Diaspora and colored by minority sensibilities and interests.
Finally, Jews around the world who think they can disconnect their future from Israel’s are simply mistaken. For better and for worse, (I believe much for the better!), from the moment of Israel’s establishment the fate of all Jews everywhere has been intimately connected to that of the national homeland of the Jewish people.
So what should be done at this most difficult of times to re-engage progressive Jews around the world with Israel and harness their passion for social justice to bolster Israel’s democratic journey?
Paradoxically, in what we can only hope is the darkest of twenty-first century junctures for liberal democracy, lies a moment of shared Jewish and Israeli opportunity. If, until recently, it often seemed that Israelis (of all faiths and backgrounds) and world Jewry inhabited different planets when it comes to democratic society-building, this is no longer the case.
Possibly as never before, Israelis and Jews around the world can have a candid conversation, as fellow-travelers, about our respective democratic journeys. In so doing, we can gain a more informed understanding of our respective circumstances, and greater empathy for our different perspectives. We can learn, plan and work together in ways that both inform our respective struggles and strengthen our partnership.
We should grasp this opportunity enthusiastically, in the knowledge that, like it or not, Israel and world Jewry are destined to remain – forever together.