Israel needs American liberal Jews now more than ever

So I received a link in my inbox to an article “The age of Trump spells the end of the Zionist dream” from the important anti-occupation blog-cum-website “+972”.  It starts, according to the by now familiar formula, with a depiction of the current problematic realities for Jews in North America, the communal organizations that don’t speak for them, Trump, Bibi, the Israeli occupation and the difficulties that American liberal Jews have with their relationship to Israel. So far, so good. Nothing that we haven’t shaken our head at in frustration and disappointment in recent times.

Which makes Ben Lorber’s conclusions, when they come, as being at best bizarre and at worst, drivel. In essence, the idea behind the sensationalist headline is this: Trump’s America will inevitably crash in flames and when it does, American liberal Jews will realize that a fascist Israel is untenable, reject it wholeheartedly, forget it exists – and instead forge ahead with building a Diasporic Jewish identity encompassing social justice, solidarity and love.

And, I couldn’t make this up if I tried, the final five words of the piece read: “It is our only hope.”!!!! (The exclamation marks are mine!)

A quote from Marxist Professor and writer Terry Eagleton springs to mind, “Historical determinism is a recipe for political quietism”. The future has been written and we just need to let it happen: The USA is going to wake up from the Trump nightmare, and Israel is going to slide off the map into the abyss. Simple.  As. That.

Fortunately, unsubstantiated and unmitigated speculation can’t easily ruin my day. In fact, it has actually spurred me on to write this piece and offer an alternative vision based on a not too dissimilar understanding of the current reality.

Let’s tackle the first half of Lorber’s hypothesis; there has been a phenomenal increase in anti-Semitic incidents, including JCC threats (69 threats at 54 JCCs across the country in 27 states), cemetery desecration & online attacks. It’s clear that actual physical violence is just around the corner. Despite the inspiring acts of protest and mobilization of Jewish liberals, Trump still got elected, The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations happened at a Trump hotel, Steve Bannon was appointed White House Chief Strategist and sorry to preempt failure, but there are no signs that David Friedman will be prevented from becoming the next US Ambassador to Israel. And where is it going? Well, we are only just over a month into a four-year term – it would be nice to ring up some successes, any success, in the long and essential road of fighting back.

There’s a phrase that I like that I can’t remember who to credit:  American Jews are the minority in America but act like the majority, whilst Israeli Jews are the majority in Israel but act like a minority.

The USA is home to 319 million people, 2% of which are Jewish. However much they’d like to think otherwise, the Jews of the USA are not exempt from the forces that have shaped the history of the Jewish people throughout the world from time immemorial. A minority people, subjected to anti-Semitism, at the behest of a political leadership that could suddenly decide that the Jews don’t need standing up for, facing a rapid decrease in number (orthodox Jews being the notable exception) etc etc.

I’m all for people demanding change, resisting, and holding their leaders accountable, no matter where. More specifically, I believe it is the responsibility of socially conscious Jews to take our 2000 year experience of being the dispossessed and persecuted and channel it to bring about a society based on Jewish values of……..social justice, solidarity and love! (The exclamation mark is all mine!)

And now let us look at the second half of the equation: Israel.

I’m sure for some of the readers of +972, even the name conjures up images of Israeli soldiers humiliating (or worse) innocent Palestinians. But the desire and need for the Jewish people to have a home and to be in control of our own lives precedes the occupation and will outlive the occupation. More than that, the theoretical justification for Jewish self-determination has as much to do with the Dutch as it has to the Palestinians. Not much.

(That’s not to say that the crimes that the occupation necessitates are not the disaster of our times, and as a Jewish people we need to fight for its end with all our energies. But Zionism must be more than that).

Israel is a very young country with a population of 8.5 million people. If there is a place that needs liberal Jews to turn things around, it is here in the physical and spiritual centre of the Jewish people.

In 1986, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, the late leader of the Israeli Labour movement spoke about, without an ounce of cynicism, a plan to bring a minimum of 1 million liberal American Jews to Israel. He was convinced then, that the Jewish State was in a precarious place, and its future existence could very well depend on American help. He wasn’t talking about loan guarantees, or overseeing peace talks at Camp David or even the fight against the appointment of an unsuitable incumbent for Ambassador to Israel. He was talking about Israel’s dire need for flesh and blood Jewish Americans with their Jewish American liberal values: of #jewishresistance, of a rich culturally Jewish life committed to creating vibrant alternatives to challenge the orthodox religious monopoly, of the struggle to end the occupation, of environmentalism, anti-racism, JStreet, If Not Now and more. Essentially, the inextricable link between being Jewish and fighting for social justice.

Rather than the rise of Trumpism signaling the end of Zionism, I am positing that it could in fact usher in a new age of Zionism. A reclamation of Zionism from the right, from the occupiers, from the absence of Jewish values as a compass for how Israel should be treating both its own citizens and its neighbours.

It is not hard to imagine the successes of passionate, ideological, socially conscious American Jews in the Israeli political / social landscape and the current struggle in Trump’s  America will hopefully provide a good training ground.

About the Author
Anton Marks is a British-born Israeli and a founder member of the largest urban kibbutz in Israel. He has been an informal educator for the last 25 years, and has recently returned from Shlichut in Maryland for the youth movement Habonim Dror. His passion for Zionist education, Tikkun Olam, Jewish history, identity and culture are a recipe for engaging and challenging articles.
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