This is Just a Wake-Up Call

For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been flooded with reactions to the Israeli Government’s decision to go back on its decision to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. As a leader in United Synagogue Youth (USY), a former camper at Camp Ramah New England, and student of pluralistic Jewish day schools since age four, I am deeply disturbed by this decision.

The reversal goes against the values of my family, community, and friends. These Jewish institutions with which I so strongly identify have finally begun to criticize the Netanyahu government. Yet I don’t see a backlash against these critical voices. My question is this: Why is nobody calling these organizations anti-Israel? Why are their leaders not “self-hating Jews” secretly plotting the destruction of a Jewish state? Are they “Worse than Kapos?” When Jews in the Diaspora criticize Israeli policy toward the Occupied Territories and treatment of Palestinians these insults are hurled at them. But when the subject is pluralism among Jews, there is no name-calling.

Last week immediately following Shabbat, I watched videos taken just a few hours earlier of my friends on Israel travel programs peacefully protesting. Some of these kids are politically liberal, and some are conservative, but they were all openly and proudly criticizing the Israeli government’s reversal on the prayer space. I was relieved to note that nobody called my friends “anti-Zionist” or “self-hating Jews,” but I am deeply disturbed by the irony and the double standard that this last week has posed. If those same committed Jews, with deep ties to Israel, had protested something other than prayer space, they would have been treated very differently.

This week has brought forward the idea that it is acceptable for leading American Jewish institutions to criticize policies within Israel. That’s a good first step, but it is not enough. It is not enough for us as American Jews to defend our fellow Jews’ religious rights openly while ignoring the rights of millions of Palestinians who are marginalized every day. We need to ensure that this new energy and willingness to be critical of Israel remains and does not just become a temporary phase.

We as members, leaders, and supporters of the American Jewish Establishment need to come together and unite against the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the treatment of the Palestinian people.

We need to recognize that when we talk about Israel we must address not just the good but also bad. We need to build a love for Israel where the conversation shifts from unequivocal support to a support that includes asking the question “how do we ensure that this nation stands for our values for all people now and in the future?”

In order for us as egalitarian Jews to be wholly comfortable taking this first step of bringing our values to the forefront of our relationships with Israel, we must continue to open the door to new ideas and hear from new voices. We need to hear from groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now and IfNotNow – even if it’s difficult at times to hear new and different opinions. I am proud of the organizations which with I align for standing up for their beliefs even if they go against those of the Israeli governments, but I hope that we as the American Jewish establishment realize that the events of the past few days have been merely a wake-up call.

About the Author
Ilan Cohen is a junior at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. He is the great-grandson of AIPAC's founder, Si Kenen. Cohen is involved with progressive Israel groups including J Street and IfNotNow. He works at the forefront of reshaping high school Israel awareness and education. He is also active in United Synagogue Youth (USY) where he serves on the International General Board.
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