For five years I’ve been working to make the case for more nuance and complexity when engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, striving to hold the center while the extremes dominate many of the conversations about Israel. As director of IPF Atid, the young professionals program at Israel Policy Forum, I regularly meet peers disillusioned with the discourse around Israel and its lack of nuance in both hasbara and anti-occupation spaces. There has been no shortage of young American Jews asking hard questions about Israel and debating the most effective ways to demonstrate their commitment while the government and people of Israel move further from their values. Over the past few months, however, the rapid deterioration of support for Israel has been unlike anything I have seen before.
Since Israel’s election in November, my days have been consumed with phone calls from frantic young Jews in both Israel and America, worried for the fate of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. My Israeli friends and partners wonder if the already at-risk relationship will survive this government, especially if it lasts a full four years. My American Jewish friends don’t know how to make the case that Israel is a beacon of democracy and freedom in the Middle East amidst the backdrop of new draconian legislation introduced daily in Israel and horrifying rhetoric from the new ministers.
Even more troubling than the volume of the onslaught of concerns is who these calls are coming from. These types of worries normally come from Ashkenazi, secular, and progressive Jews from American-born families. But now I’m hearing from friends far beyond this demographic.
Typically, my friends and family in the Mizrahi community have not been concerned by actions Israeli governments have taken. This is in part due to the role Israel played in being a refuge for many of our families, and also to the generally right-wing views pervasive in our community on a range of issues. With this new government, however, even more traditional Mizrahi Americans have been reaching out to me concerned with the information coming out of Israel. The same applies to my friends in the Modern Orthodox community. The range of issues being targeted by members of the Israeli government is so broad that they likely are troubled by religious pluralism, or the treatment of Palestinians, or the justice system, gender equality, LGBT rights –the list goes on. Concerns about this new government’s plans are crossing cultural, religious, and political barriers.
I also spend much of my time engaging in alarming conversations with Jewish communal professionals who talk about Israel for a living, are the children of Israeli parents, pro-Israel college activists, and seekers of policy-oriented discussions about Israel. Pro-Israel activists on campus are reporting that they no longer know how to show Israel in a positive light without feeling like imposters. Professionals who recruit students for a variety of Israel-related experiences are receiving anxious messages from LGBTQ students who don’t want to travel to a country with homophobes in power. Those of us who love Israel are now confronting serious questions about our comfort traveling there, our interest in delving into discussions about it, and consideration of making aliyah – all impacted by the government and its decisions.
As the Israeli government moves farther to the right, young Jews, even the most moderate of them, are distancing themselves from the Jewish state. When the previous “unity” government was in power, discussing Israel was already a challenge given trends like settler violence and potential annexation. Despite this, Israel remained committed to the liberal democratic principles articulated in its Declaration of Independence and theoretically supported two states should there be a ready and willing partner. Even as settlements expanded, most of my peers and I felt that prosperity and security, not religious ideology and personal gain, motivated Israeli governments. American Jews understand why Israel has become more hawkish amidst security threats and failed peace initiatives of the past. But this extremist government’s view of Israel’s security, Jewishness, and democracy veers into dystopian territory.
This Israeli government and its extremist agenda represent the most consequential moment in my generation’s relationship to Israel. But from this crisis emerges a new opportunity for American Jews to unify and connect with their peers in Israel. Broad coalitions across the political, religious and generational spectrums in the American Jewish community that before were impossible to form, now are urgently needed and far more likely. The words and actions of this government are so extreme, nearly every Zionist organization in the US has been compelled to put out statements condemning them. Instead of criticizing the strength or details of this statement or that and shaming those who have not spoken out, we must applaud and encourage those who have, lifting up the voices that have bravely risked their reputation, donors, and credibility to be true to their values. We need to stand up for each other as we call for a stronger, more robust, and more pluralistic Israeli democracy.
At the same time, we should be amplifying the voices of Israelis advocating for their democracy and basic rights – and supporting them. Our role in the story of Israel is not to sit on the sidelines now. Those of us who feel disillusioned with what the Israel we have always loved now represents must find our key partners in Israel and the diaspora Jewish community and lift up one another, not move away from Israel when it needs us most.