Three months after a mob of ultra-nationalists stormed the United States Capitol, six ultra-nationalists took their wrongful places in the Knesset.
While the iconography of their battle flags differs, the message is the same: If you think, look, pray, and love differently from “us”; you are to be feared, hated, de-legitimized and replaced.
The current assault on democracy is not confined to the Unites States and Israel. Globally, democracy and hence freedom are by all accounts on the retreat, as charted in the ominously titled study “Democracy Under Siege”, recently published by Freedom House.
Evidently our unprecedentedly crowded, pressured and inter-connected planet provides as fertile conditions for a populist pandemic as it does for other viruses.
But though a cliché, such moments of crisis do offer opportunities.
One is to address the profound schism between progressive Jews around the world and Israel caused by the long-growing perception of an increasingly unbridgeable democratic divide.
The distress and anger of progressive Jews with Israel which has grown since 1967, accelerated during the Obama administrations. With his election, progressive Americans and progressives everywhere were brimming with confidence that democracy was imminently entering the promised land.
Over the same period Israel looked to be moving inextricably in the opposite direction. When progressive Jews around the world looked at Israel they saw among other things; successive right-wing governments, the ever-receding prospect of a two-state solution with all that entails, recurring set-backs to progressive Judaism, the Nation-State Law, and toxic political discourse that was still unthinkable back home.
But with the election of Donald Trump and years of sustained assault on the institutions and fabric of many western democracies; the perception gap has surely narrowed.
After decades of growing disconnect, it is now clear that Israelis and world Jewry inhabit the same democratic planet.
This is not to claim that our democracies lack for differences. Democratic journeys are always distinct, shaped by time, history, geography, geo-politics, and more.
But the common topography and pitfalls are now very evident. We all face challenges including tribalism, racism, entitlement, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia.
While our Shamen of hate incant in different tongues, they call forth the same demons.
The ripe global conditions for sowing division are also shared: exponentially faster demographic, communal and technological change, growing socio-economic gaps, a deficit of inter-communal trust and of trust between citizens and state institutions. In the USA, Israel and around much of the democratic world, citizens are unable to imagine let alone cooperate to shape more successful shared futures.
These are the weaknesses that our respective extremists exploit. For them, the very idea of more cohesive societies that dignify, include, and offer the prospect of ever fairer shared futures for all their citizens, are anathema.
Given our shared democratic distress, it makes urgent sense for progressive Jews around the world and progressive Israelis to pool our considerable experience, knowledge, and resources.
This effort will greatly benefit from the strong foundations and extensive networks of progressive cooperation built up over decades. These span large parts of civil society (NGOs and philanthropists), hundreds of educators and academics, and dozens of agencies.
Effective cooperation will require frank clarification of stubborn misapprehensions, some of which have persisted since before Israel’s establishment. We must also address a mutual lack of basic knowledge. For example, the composition of Israeli society and the denominational landscape of world Jewry.
When it comes to misapprehensions, we need far more sophisticated mutual appreciation of our fundamentally different circumstances and hence perspectives.
Jews living as minorities around the world should acknowledge the sometimes inevitably ugly realities of sovereignty and the use of state power – their own as well as Israel’s. They should also better appreciate the enduring fears that sear the Israeli psyche. While it is true that Israel is militarily stronger than ever, so too is Iran. In any case, fear is equally toxic whether fermented by threats that are real or imagined.
Progressive Israelis need to better understand the inherent sensitivity and fears of Jewish minority communities, especially at this time of greatly increased levels of antisemitism, some of it deadly.
In this context, Israel’s leaders should be challenged to take these fears into much fuller account and more responsibly measure the impact on world Jewry of their words, domestic policies, and partisan international alliances.
Another essential element for re-connecting progressive Jews around the world with Israel is for more Jewish-Israelis to begin to take progressive Judaism seriously. It is high time for meaningful engagement with the rich history, culture, traditions, rituals, and societal priorities of progressive Judaism outside Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis who practice progressive Judaism and face institutional discrimination and popular disdain deserve much greater support, also from secular progressives for many of whom the “real” synagogue they do not attend is still orthodox.
Just as importantly, we all need to grow up and move beyond Israel’s foundational myths.
As I argued in “A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel” , while in a sustained period of crisis, Israel’s democratic trajectory has been quite different from that of unrelenting descent as traced by most progressive commentators. Israel was not, nor could it ever have realistically been established as a beacon of democracy, as too many progressive Jews around the world and Israelis have chosen to believe for too long.
Likewise, Israel was never a cohesive society. Its diverse communities were simply far smaller, had less interaction and far fewer democratic and civic aspirations and energies.
In both these regards, the concerted and increasingly sophisticated efforts over recent decades of all the communities that comprise Israeli society to secure full and fair civic inclusion – also through welcome cooperation across traditional divides – tell a very different story from that of terminal democratic decline.
Whatever the case, given that the great majority of far older and more secure western democracies – certainly, those home to the great majority of Jews outside Israel — are still struggling to come to terms with their own democratically-flawed pasts, let alone fulfill their own democratic aspirations; greater introspection and circumspection about Israel’s democratic challenges might be expected.
If conducted thoughtfully and robustly, as well as contributing valuable comparative knowledge for our respective democratic struggles, such cooperation will also build our mutual understanding and empathy, thereby strengthening our frayed relations.
Be assured, if we progressives join forces and undertake serious and honest work to address our respective democratic challenges; the extremists will not replace us – they will unite us.