Friday, October 21, 2022 – כ״ו תִשְׁרֵי תשפ”ג
“לְמַ֤עַן צִיּוֹן֙ לֹ֣א אֶחֱשֶׁ֔ה וּלְמַ֥עַן יְרוּשָׁלַ֖͏ִם לֹ֣א אֶשְׁק֑וֹט עַד־יֵצֵ֤א כַנֹּ֙גַהּ֙ צִדְקָ֔הּ וִישׁוּעָתָ֖הּ כְּלַפִּ֥יד יִבְעָֽר׃”
“For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent,
For the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still”
As the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election were being tallied, my social media feed began lighting up with people’s reactions. Donations began streaming in for stalwart civil society organizations that work to protect basic universal and progressive values.
The ACLU’s donation page crashed the day after the election as donors flooded its site after it released a powerful statement about Trump’s election. Contributions increased by 7,000% with “roughly 120,000 donations totaling more than $7.2 million,” according to the Atlantic. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said that the ADL had a “fifty-fold increase in donations.” Planned Parenthood also had massive increases in philanthropic gifts.
After the neo-Nazi/White supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, the ADL reported unprecedented support including 5 major gifts from such recognizable names as James Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox (and son of Trump acolyte Rupert Murdoch) who pledged $1 million in response to the white-nationalist rally. Apple gave $1 million, and JPMorgan Chase and Company pledged $500,000.
Our own Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism saw a spike in support and was a leader in mobilizing our Movement for justice, equality, and basic human decency. It seemed that the worse things got – Charlottesville, horrific immigration policies with toddlers locked in cages, the murder of Breonna Talyor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and more recently, the Supreme Court nominations leading to the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade – the more American Jews felt threatened and motivated to resist Trump’s racist, misogyny, and antisemitic dog-whistling, support increased for those critical organizations that foster institutional and social change for the good and candidates for office in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 Presidential elections.
The same cannot be said about Israel.
In February 2017, just a few weeks after the inauguration, I sat with a group of rabbinic colleagues sponsored by a liberal human rights organization.
One rabbi exclaimed about the U.S.: “We have to show that we can love our country and be patriotic American citizens even though we abhor the [Trump] administration and its policies.”
“That is exactly what we have been saying about Israel. One doesn’t have to support the policies of the [then] Netanyahu government in order to love, feel connected to, and be supportive of the State of Israel,” I added.
Yet, during 3 out of 4 Israeli elections, when Netanyahu did everything in his power to retain control and hold on as Prime Minister, American Jews who were busy resisting and protesting Trump and Trumpism, by and large, did the opposite when it came to Israel. Instead of organizing and mobilizing in support of liberal Israeli policies, studies show that American Jews distanced themselves from Israel as Israeli politics moved further to the Right.
Itamar Ben Gvir: “After the violent clashes in the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah on October 14, I took my kids to the arcade to teach them what we do to terrorists.” (courtesy of Twitter)
Now, with 10 days left until Israel’s fifth election in three years, we are seeing the Israeli far right rise meteorically. This week, the Religious Zionist party unveiled its judicial plan that includes abolishing –two charges facing Opposition Leader Netanyahu.
In response, National Unity member and Minister of Justice, Gideon Sa’ar and right-wing opponent of Netanyahu, said:
“Religious Zionism’s judicial reform is a plan to dismantle the justice system and to dismantle the state. It is totally clear that the attempt to scrap certain indictments was intended to apply to the same indictments related to the opposition leader’s trial.”
So, why is it that with the rise in right-wing extremism in Israel that threatens the fabric of an open and democratic society, we do not see the same response from liberal American Jews that we saw in response to threats to American democracy? Why have liberal American Jews not taken pages out of the playbook of Sheldon Adelson and other right-wing mega-donors, and put their money where their values are? Labor Party head Merav Michaeli advocated for such an approach, and encouraged progressive-leaning media outlets, think tanks, and funding to increase public discourse around universal values.
The ultra-Orthodox group Eretz HaKodesh openly threatened to do all it can to weaken and crush the Reform Movement in Israel and abroad. Yet, those threats do not elicit even a fraction of a response from the same people who marched for Women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, Gun Violence Prevention, and more.
“Since the  Six-Day War,” explains Emily Temkin in her new book Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities, “the Jewish-American community and Israeli politics have not been moving in the same direction. … Yes, Israel is an issue with which many American Jews are completely consumed, and they identify with their version of American Judaism or American Jewishness. But there is less consensus on what that identification means.”
Even if, let’s say, Israel was the most progressive, equitable, human-rights-focused place on Earth, it would still be a different identity.”
While the American Jewish left continues to search for its version of Sheldon Adelson, the other concerns we ought to have are these:
- Progressive/Liberal American Jews are American but do not feel an ethnic tie or a sense of Israel as also their second home as do many in the Orthodox and more traditional Jewish world.
- There is a lack of awareness of Israel in the liberal American Jewish community. Israel is simply not on the radar screen of most American liberal Jews.
- All politics are local, so the dire need to resist autocracy, racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and hatred of the “other” compel us to work for change in America thereby depleting our energy to support those issues in Israel that are important to us but become out of sight and out of mind.
- Some of us feel uncomfortable with the perception of meddling in the domestic affairs of another country (i.e. Israel), in which we are not citizens.
- The mainstream liberal American Jews who feel connected to Israel also feel conflicted. They/we are deeply concerned about Israel’s future and are critical of policies (Occupation, Religion and State, etc…) that we believe are in neither Israel’s nor America’s best interests. However, the anti-Israel rhetoric (much of which is also antisemitic) being blasted into the media makes it difficult for many of us to distinguish between those who oppose the existence of a Jewish State and those who offer legitimate critique but support Israel. That lack of distinction often paralyzes and silences, and some of us are hesitant to appear overly critical of Israel’s policies so as to not gain ire from those further on the Right.
Too many liberal American Jews are silent about Israel save for the core of progressive pro-Israel organizations that walk the fine line advocating for social justice and universal values, and for Israel’s security thereby encouraging and supporting the significant place that Israel has in American liberal Jewish identity.
Imagine for a moment what our Israeli Reform Movement could do with an extra $1 million or $10 million, $20 million… The fact that our Israeli Movement has been outspoken against racist extremists Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smutrich in the past means that with additional support we could do a great deal more. In a time when the Right has significant donors from abroad funding newspapers, media outlets, think tanks, non-profits, and candidates, it is prudent for us in the liberal pro-Israel American Jewish community to consider a different strategy and to more massively support our liberal Jewish change agents on the ground in the Jewish State – the Israeli Reform Movement.
A Solution: ‘Just Zionism’
What is needed is for more folks in the progressive/social justice space to see Israel not as antithetical to progressive values, but just like we see America. That is, as a Jewish home (if not the Jewish home) and a central part of our liberal American Jewish identity. That means that more of us who are able to are needed to invest heavily in the values and Israeli causes in which we believe – just as we do in America on behalf of democracy and human rights. This is also why 15 young Reform social justice activists will be traveling to Israel in early November to meet Israeli Reform leaders and learn from Israeli grassroots, institutional, and political change agents. Through the sponsorship of our Reform Zionist umbrella organization ARZENU and the KKL-JNF (Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael – Jewish National Fund), we are building a group of leaders who will become activists on behalf of our issues, because as the late Rabbi Richard “Dick” Hirsch taught,
“Zionism is a social justice Movement.”
American Jews know well how to raise funds, organize, and to make change. Polls show that 80% of American Jews consider Israel to be important to our American Jewish identity, and if we don’t act now, we will have only ourselves to blame.