When it comes to Israel, I’m a relentless optimist. I’m not naïve. I believe that Israel now faces the greatest threat to its future since the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This time the threat is internal, but it is no less real. The anti-democratic actions of the current government represent a radical departure from the Jewish and democratic values articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The Israel that we have known and loved for 75 years is in serious jeopardy.
So, why am I still smiling? I grew up in New York where a turnout of a quarter of a million to celebrate Israel Day was a modest crowd. But I have never seen anything like the outpouring of energy and emotion in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem we are seeing today. Hundreds of thousands of people gathering every week to rally for democracy. Waving the Jewish flag. Singing Hatikvah. Hatikvah is not a protest song. It’s a song about a dream, a vision. It’s about building something beautiful together.
This is the kind of communal energy that created Israel in the first place. But things change. The socialist passions that moved so many to fight for the collective good were not sustainable in more normal times. As Israel prospered, individualism flourished. The sense of communal purpose diminished. Now it’s back. And, it’s already having a galvanizing impact on American Jewry.
Here in Seattle, the local chapter of UnXeptable has held rallies in downtown Bellevue for 36 consecutive weeks. At first, the greater Seattle Jewish community barely seemed to notice. But that has changed. Momentum is growing. Weekly attendance has climbed from 30 to 100. And we are planning a big rally at Herzl-Ner Tamid on September 27th, which we hope will draw many hundreds more. Saving Israeli Democracy – Open Letter 8/2023 – Google Docs
The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. There is a new energy in the air. American-born Jews and Israeli-born Jews are drawing closer. People who have argued bitterly about Israeli policies for years are now working together in harmony. In my 20 years in Seattle, I have never seen our community so unified and so excited about standing up for Israel.
Some of the energy is motivated by fear, fear of losing something precious. But more of it is motivated by hope. The chalutzim/pioneers once sang: “anu banu artza livnot u’lehivanot ba/we have come to this land to build it and to be transformed by it.” The birth of the State of Israel fundamentally transformed the life of the Jewish people, and its achievements over 75 years have inspired and uplifted Jews all over the world. Once again, there is a growing feeling that the greatest community that the Jewish people has ever created still has the power to transform and uplift us.
The work will not be easy. We did not arrive at this moment overnight. This crisis is the product of tensions in Israel that have been building for decades. They can only be mitigated through patient, inclusive dialogue and empathetic listening. The work of Israel’s Yoav Heller is but one example of the beginning of an open-ended national conversation on the question: How can Israel be both a distinctive Jewish nation and a part of the world community?
It’s a question that Israeli Jews and American Jews share. Neither community can claim unqualified success in navigating this territory. Given the track record of American Jewry in stemming the tide of assimilation, we can hardly blame Israelis for not anticipating with bated breath the spread of liberal Judaism. On the flip side, today’s Israeli demonstrators are in full-scale revolt against Jewish particularism gone wild, an unholy merger between religious and political contempt for the goyim. Clearly, it’s not only American Jews who value universal moral standards.
Since each of us brings a unique perspective to this ancient Jewish tension, wouldn’t it make sense for us to wrestle with our Jewishness together? The current crisis offers us a golden opportunity for Jewish renewal, the product of a conversation between Israeli and American Jews rooted in humility and mutual curiosity. What began as a protest movement could become a movement for deep, lasting change if we use this moment to craft an exciting new vision for the Jewish people.
But first, we have to avert disaster. American Jews have been slow to respond to the magnitude of the danger. We are not used to defending Israel in this way. But it is not too late. The house is on fire! New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — do not “stay among the sheepfolds!”(Judges 5:16).
In the past, when Israel was threatened existentially, American Jewry mobilized swiftly and overwhelmingly. The first step for us today is to create a groundswell of communal energy. Large broad-based rallies like the one planned for Seattle on September 27th should be happening in every city in the country. If it’s not happening in your city, ask why not.
Challenge your leaders to act more boldly. Question the notion that American Jews have no right to speak out. If you detect ambivalence among your friends (including your Orthodox friends!), take them out to coffee and hear them out. Start an open-ended conversation about the current crisis and invite people of varied points of view to share their opinions.
In short, create a buzz around this issue in your community. Now is a moment for immediate and decisive action. Let us hesitate no longer.
For more ideas and resources, go to this link: https://linktr.ee/unxeptable_seattle