Israel’s founder and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, famously said, “The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.” By this standard, there can be no doubt concerning the robust nature of Israel’s democracy. Ben-Gurion’s words ring truer than ever today, a time when Israel is coming under a microscope of historic proportions.
For a number of American Jewish individuals and organizations who support Israel, the current debate over Israeli judicial reform presents an uncomfortable conundrum: How do you react when a country that you love so dearly — much like a close friend or family member — stands on the cusp of taking potentially self-defeating actions that are antithetical to your values?
Of course, one should always feel free to criticize Israel. After all, freedom of speech is an inherent element of both democratic and Jewish values. Yet, from one’s position in the Diaspora, is it right to make that criticism public — and what words and actions would be most productive, meaningful, and impactful?
Here are your five options:
1. Do nothing
At times like this, it’s tempting to stay quiet and hope everything returns to normal once it passes.
Yet, as a Jewish organization, staying silent on the prevailing issues of the day runs the risk of making you irrelevant. A fortune cookie I once read said: “Say Nothing. Do Nothing. Be Nothing.” As “American Friends,” have we become nothing more than pass-through organizations, securing gifts and distributing dollars for Israel, but avoiding the essence of advocacy and educational work when the situation feels too sticky?
The do-nothing approach also puts us at risk of becoming echo chambers. Are we only preaching to the choir, or worse, simply talking to ourselves?
2. Walk away
Would you throw away your broader support for Israel over a disagreement or a series of disagreements with the prevailing government of the day? Is your relationship with Israel really on such thin ice? You would never walk away from your own government each time you disagreed with a policy direction.
Will American Jews take to the streets to protest judicial reforms, like their Israeli peers are doing by the hundreds of thousands? As of this writing, the proposed reforms haven’t sparked anything of the sort in the US.
As opposed to feeling angry as their core emotion, many American Jews are more confused than anything else. Beyond avid followers of Israel news as well as Jewish communal steadfast lay leaders and professionals, and, even among those circles, there’s generally incomplete knowledge about the situation in Israel. What specifically about the reforms challenges the state’s democratic values? Why are Israelis so activated about this issue? Why would Israel do this, and why now? There are more questions than answers.
4. Lobby for policy change
Much like The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) did in an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid, one can express concern about the state of Israeli democracy in a subtle way that still advocates for change.
You can express your “deep and abiding love for the State of Israel” from the outset while offering Israeli leaders a way forward that could substantively take the interests and values of Diaspora Jewry into account.
JFNA articulated that “the essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights.” This message resonates not only today, but historically. Given the Jewish people’s longtime minority status — and then with the establishment of the modern State of Israel, majority status in one country — an important litmus test for our commitment to Jewish values is how we treat minorities in our own Jewish homeland.
That’s precisely why judicial reform is a high-stakes conversation for world Jewry, not just Israelis. When Israel’s implementation of Jewish values comes into question, it’s a defining moment for the entire Jewish people. The current events in Israel truly feel like a struggle over the Jewish soul of the Jewish state. It also makes some longtime supporters of Israel wonder if their philanthropy should remain unconditional — a possibility that would’ve been unfathomable in prior generations.
5. Invest in the future of Israel in a way that’s consistent with your values
This is what I would recommend as possibly the best approach for an American who cares about Israel. This is also what we try to do every day at Americans for Ben-Gurion University (A4BGU). Amid the contentious conversations about what’s wrong when it comes to Israel, we rally around what’s right.
What’s right is advancing the pioneering technologies and scalable solutions in water conservation, environmental science, medical research breakthroughs, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and more. These modern-day technologies benefit not only Israel but all of humanity. Simply said, we help Israel live up to its promise of being a “Migdal Or” — a beacon of light to the world by helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
What’s right is realizing the vision of David Ben-Gurion to help populations thrive, not just survive, in arid desert environments.
What’s right is shaping and leading the global fight against climate change.
A4BGU spreads the education and awareness that helps turn this prosocial, apolitical vision into a reality. We offer an active way to invest in Israel’s future — in a manner that aligns with your values, transcends the political situation, contributes to the continued growth of Israel, and makes the Jewish state a country that fulfills its greatest potential. Even in times of controversy, your support for Israel, much like ours, can still focus on building Israel and amplifying the nation’s global impact.
Making this ‘marriage’ work
Ultimately, the Israel-American Jewry relationship is akin to a marriage. We shouldn’t shy away from the challenging moments. This is the time to prove you care; to show that Israel and its American supporters can still make the relationship work in a mutually beneficial way; to show that our shared values will always bring us together, especially when those values are at risk and need to be protected. Treat Israel like a dear friend or family member who, while navigating a time of crisis, needs encouragement and a reminder from you about what truly matters.
In that regard, today’s challenges between Israel and American Jewry can instead make way for a moment of greater closeness and connection.