Israel as football

Maybe it was inevitable.

Maybe we just didn’t realize, as deeply as we should have, that everything changes.

Maybe we just thought that Israel, once it became enshrined in the American public imagination as a nation of gorgeous, athletic, sun-bronzed, brainy entrepreneurial heroes, it would stay that way. Nothing would change.

But time took us away from World War II and the Holocaust and the idea of Israel as a haven for persecuted Jews straight out of the DP camps, and the death camps before that. It took us away from the idea of Israel as the invincible warriors who defeated their swarthy ignoble enemies.

People began not always agreeing about Israel. Some supported it wholeheartedly; others, even Jews, did not. Over time, Israel went from being a feel-good issue to a source of controversy.

But it is only now that it has become a full-on wedge issue, something that is beginning to split Democrats, and possibly will unite many Democrats against it.

That would be both a tragedy and a disaster.

As two freshman Democratic members of Congress made statements that were both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, others in the party struggled with its responses. That’s new, and it’s terrible.

And then, last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in response to a tweet by President Donald J. Trump, decided to keep those two members of Congress, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, out of the country. They’d advocated for BDS, and that meant that Israel was justified in keeping them out, according to Israeli legislation. But they’re members of the U.S. Congress, which demanded the opposite.

To understate, the optics — Netanyahu giving in, immediately and passively, to Trump — were bad.

And the underlying lack of faith in Israel was even worse.

Israel is imperfect. In that, it is like every other of the 192 countries that belong to the United Nations. But it is good, despite its challenges — challenges that are far more severe and existential than most other countries face.

It welcomes U.S. politicians. This summer, 72 of them went — 41 Democrats, 31 Republicans. They talked to politicians representing opposition parties as well as Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. They learned about Israel’s agriculture, its borders, its security issues. They saw and felt and breathed it. They came home with a deeper understanding of Israel, and a renewed respect for it.

It is entirely possible that Representatives Tlaib and Omar would have chosen to see none of those things, instead reinforcing what they already believed. They could have gone only to the West Bank and occupied territories. They could have gone back home and talked about poverty and brutality and hopelessness. (They would have been right; that’s part of Israel too.) That would have done far less damage to Israel than their canceled trip did.

We cannot let Israel become a wedge issue. We cannot let the Democrats, who have supported Israel since it was created, see it as a liability. We cannot let the Republicans claim it as entirely and only theirs. We cannot let it become anything than the bipartisan cause it always has been.

Many Jewish organizations know that. AIPAC has come out against the decision, and so has an alphabet soup of Jewish groups, including the Jewish Federations of North American, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League. None of them support Representatives Omar and Tlaib, but they fear the results of the decision, and do not like the idea of Israel as a football, kicked between opposing teams.

We hope that this will end, that somehow Israel will be able to stop being a wedge, that it will somehow once again unite rather than divide. 

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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