The most massive and persistent Israeli demonstrations since the creation of the state have everything to do with loving Israel. They have spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world, where demonstrators — liberal and progressive, moderate, as well as anti-occupation — have come out in force to protest judicial changes and to stand up for a democratic and just Israel. While all eyes have been focused on the Celebrate Israel parade in New York, this mega-event is just the tip of the iceberg of a movement that has reached every corner of the globe and embraces virtually every Jewish community. The extent of agitation and discomfort with the policies of the present government and what it represents is indeed a phenomenon of international proportions. To understand its full meaning, it is useful to look beyond North America and Europe to more remote Jewish communities elsewhere. Australia represents an excellent and telling example.
The Australian Jewish community, estimated at about 120,000, is one of the most cohesive, best organized, and openly pro-Israel anywhere. Its communal institutions — from its school system attended by close to 70 percent of Jewish children, its broad range of youth movements, community services, newspapers, religious centers, and umbrella organizations — is also extraordinarily Israel-focused. Per capita contributions to Israel are the highest in the world; almost all Australian Jews visit Israel often; many have family there. Their Israel connection is both principled and personal.
Australian Jewry also coalesced in a free society. It has flourished in a multi-cultural environment that has embraced pluralism and tolerance. It has benefited, especially after World War II, from the full range of human rights and civil liberties. Its institutions have been propped up by governmental subventions. And its identity has wedded Jewish pride with universal values of equality and equity, social justice and freedom, as well as with immense appreciation of the connection between a vibrant civil society and democratic robustness. Until recently, this linkage between Jewish coherence and liberalism served them well, highlighting the warmth of their community together with their passion for social justice.
Then came the current political, social, and ideological crisis that has enveloped Israel in recent months. Like their sisters and brothers elsewhere, Aussie Jews now have to contend with the complexities and uncertainties of the present moment. They are reexamining what Israel means for them and for their community and what loving Israel entails in these fluid times.
On a recent trip to Australia, during which I met hundreds of Jews and had the opportunity to meet with leaders of the community in various cities, I encountered various degrees of discomfort, denial, and despondency — along with a considerable amount of reassessment. The initial trigger — the palpably anti-democratic judicial changes proposed by the present Netanyahu government — quickly morphed into concern with the social divisions within the country, the mounting violence in Israel and the occupied territories, and then, with Israel’s growing vulnerability in the international arena.
Reactions, however, have varied significantly. Although most mainstream Jewish groups have expressed “concern” with some moves, these have fallen far short of what has become common in the Northern Hemisphere. Even those strongly opposed to the ultra-nationalist flavor of government measures have been careful to downplay their overt disappointment. Very few have dared to link the current turmoil to Israel’s continued control over Palestinian lands and lives. Indeed, many are either purposely poorly informed, avowedly confused, or increasingly fed up. They are, nevertheless, rethinking their heretofore unwavering support for anything Israeli. For a community with the record of Australian Jews, this in itself is a monumental shift.
Multiple reasons exist for the reluctance of Australian Jews to speak out more forcefully on what is taking place in Israel. Some explanations relate to the large number of Holocaust survivors in their midst and to a real fear of sparking increased antisemitism. Some justify their silence as an outgrowth of their distaste for “washing Israel’s dirty laundry” in public. Yet others claim that they do not want to engage in besmirching Israel for temporary lapses, thus belittling the depth and scope of the present crisis. And most hide behind the claim that it is not their — or for that matter, Australia’s — business to meddle in the internal affairs of another country (even though the United States and most European countries have increasingly commented on Israeli affairs). Intriguingly, there has developed a broadening gap between the criticism expressed privately and the public stance of many groups and leaders in the community.
With a Labor government in office for the first time since 2013, which has reversed the previous Liberal coalition’s recognition of west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and has committed to recognizing Palestinian statehood (although has not set a date for its implementation), it has not been difficult for elected officials — especially those in heavily Jewish constituencies in Sydney and Melbourne — to follow suit. But they, like many of their Jewish voters, also privately share their distaste for what is happening in Israel and the Palestinian territories. This dissonance, however, is being stretched to the limits both internally and generally. There is a growing realization that there is a difference between opposition to the Israeli government and disagreement with its anti-democratic policies. There is also a dawning understanding that blind support of the present coalition in Israel might affect relations with the majority of Israelis who, polls consistently show, will vote for pro-democracy candidates should elections be held in the foreseeable future. And, needless to say, there is widening gap between backing Israel because of mutual interests and identifying with Israel because of shared values. The former is understandable; the latter is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain not only for Australians in general, but for many members of the Jewish community.
Many Jewish groups — bolstered by Israeli expats who have joined their fellow Israelis throughout the world under the UnXeptable banner — are now asking themselves a more pointed question: what Israel do they love? At issue is not just the concept of Israel as a haven or an insurance policy, nor the notion of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, but also the values it adheres to and how it treats the minorities in its midst. Some — although hardly a majority — are also asking about how these issues relate to Israel’s growing repression of the Palestinians under its tightening control.
These questions are increasingly preoccupying member of the Jewish community. The more they learn about Israel, the greater their hesitation. That is why, in an uncharacteristic way, some Jews prefer to revel in their ignorance so as not to challenge their support. Those who are best informed are also those who are struggling the most. They are privately drawing red lines which, if crossed, will eventually lead them to raise their voices in open dissent in order to articulate publicly what they are contending with privately. And some have become alienated. They are raising their hands in despair and simply opting out — even if they are aware of the implications for the future and cohesion of the Jewish community for generations to come.
Such despair does not come naturally. The most involved are seeking to try once again to make the reality of Israel more aligned with their values; to merge their Jewish hearts with their human souls. What is not at issue is the glaring fact that what happens in Israel and the policies it pursues has a direct effect on Jews throughout the world. These recent experiences in the warm, welcoming, and dedicated Jewish community of Australia emits a strong message: speaking up on what is going on in Israel is both an act of love and a contemporary way to express Jewish and Israeli interconnectedness today. In many respects, the current dilemmas facing Jews in Australia amplify those in other parts of the world, while echoing those of all citizens of Israel. This represents the coming of age of world Jewry 75 years after the creation of the State of Israel.