May 9, 2016
By Allan C. Brownfeld
This article will appear in the Spring-Summer ISSUES, the journal of the American Council
Recent developments in Israel show a deterioration in that country's democracy, an end to the peace process as settlements continue to grow in the occupied West Bank, and a growth of Jewish religious extremism. In the face of all this, establishment Jewish organizations in the U.S. continue to provide uncritical support. Many observers, both in Israel and the U.S., believe that such support enables these negative trends to continue and represents a threat to both Jewish values and to prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University, who is also a member of Ta'ayush: Arab-Jewish Partnership, a human rights advocacy group, notes that, "Israeli human rights activists .and what is left of the Israeli peace groups, including joint Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, are under attack. In a sense, this is nothing very new; organizations such as B'Tselem, the most prominent and effective in the area of human rights and Breaking the Silence, which specializes in soldiers' firsthand testimony about what they have seen and done in the occupied territories and in Gaza, have always been anathema to the Israeli right, which regards them as treasonous. But open attacks on the Israeli left have now assumed a far more sinister and ruthless character; some of them are being played out in the interrogation rooms of Israeli prisons. Clearly, there is an ongoing coordinated campaign involving the government, members of the Knesset, the police, various semiautonomous right-wing groups and the public media. Politically driven harassment, including violent and illegal arrest, interrogation , denial of legal support, virulent incitement, smear campaigns, even death threats issued by proxy---all this has become part of the repertoire of the far right, which dominates the present government and sets the tone for its policies."
Dr. Shulman, who received the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in February, argues that what he calls "state terror," with which Palestinians in the occupied territories have lived for decades, has now become a part of the texture of life in Israel itself. He notes that, "Israelis with a memory going back to the 1960s sometimes liken the current campaign to the violent actions of the extreme right in Greece before the colonels took power...Israeli peace activists have graduated from being protestors, in theory at least, protected by the law, to being dissidents---that is,legitimate targets for government-inspired attacks....Sometimes, on a good day, I think that the very starkness and horror of the occupation will eventually bring it to an end. Both in Hebrew and, I think, outside of Israel, throughout the world, the term 'occupation' has by now acquired something of the specific gravity of the word 'apartheid' in the days before the South African system collapsed...Michael Asgard, the human rights lawyer, recently published a humane and hopeful statement: one day, he said, the occupation will crumble, probably all at once. Asgard is not alone."
Challenging Free Speech and Dissent
The efforts to challenge free speech and dissent in Israel are growing. One target are so-called "leftist non-government organizations" (NGOs). They are the object of legislation now making its way through the Knesset at the behest of the right-wing minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked. Like many right-wing NGOs, liberal groups such as Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem receive funding from donors in both Israel and abroad. The new law aims at forcing liberal and human rights groups to disclose all foreign sources of support every time they appear in a public setting. Initially, Shaked wanted representatives of such groups to wear identity badges whenever they entered the Knesset or other public spaces. Seeing the analogy to the badges the Nazis forced Jews to wear in public, Prime Minister Netanyahu quietly eliminated this clause.
The legislation, known as the "NGO Transparency Bill," calls for NGOs receiving over half their support from foreign governments or "foreign political entities" (such as the EU) would be required to cite this clearly in all publications and contacts with public officials. At the same time, the Netanyahu government defeated an Opposition bill that would have applied the same criteria to right-wing and settler groups who receive much of their funding from private foreign donors such as Sheldon Adelson, but not governmental entities.
In an editorial titled "A danger to Israeli democracy," The Washington Post (Jan. 2, 2016) declared: "Israel, surrounded not only by threats to its existence but also by governments and movements that practice tyranny, is a stubbornly free society. While its democracy is imperfect and rowdy, the bedrock commitment has remained...That commitment is precisely why Israel's parliament should reject proposed legislation that would stigmatize nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas. The proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel's core values as a democratic state."
Delegitimizing Progressive Groups
While advocates of the legislation in Israel argue that it provides more "transparency," the fact is, declares The Post, "...the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Peace Now, B'Tselem, New Israel Fund and others...The law would force them to carry an unpleasant label suggesting that they are somehow at odds with Israel's interests. Millions of dollars are also being sent to Israel to support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but it comes largely from individual donors, not governments...Israel's nongovernmental organizations are already required, under an earlier law, to file disclosure reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious...It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and, ultimately, the mark of an open and free society."
Critics note that Israel's proposed legislation mirrors that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made NGO groups register as "foreign agents," as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new restrictions on NGOs will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being silenced. This is precisely the policy advocated by Israel's right-wing.
The militant right-wing group Im Tirtzu, which has been publicly embraced by Prime Minister Netanyahu, branded Israel's human rights groups "foreign agent organizations." In a recent report, Im Tirtzu describes how, like a fifth column, these groups take European funding in order to operate "from within Israel against Israeli society, IDF soldiers, and the state's ability to defend itself." In an accompanying video showing a simulated terrorist knife attack followed by grainy images of four human-rights activists, a narrator tells viewers that "while we fight terror" these "moles" of European governments "fight us." Im Tirtzu has also launched a campaign attacking artists. It refers to two of Israel's best known (and liberal) authors, Amos Oz and David Grossman, as "foreign agents" and "moles."The organization calls on Israelis to support a bill that would outlaw twenty progressive groups. Inspired by this call, seventeen members of the Knesset are sponsoring a bill that allows for the dissolution of NGOs engaging in "activity hostile to the State" and forbids employees of "mole organizations" from serving in the military due to their apparently suspect patriotism. The Netanyahu government proposal does not go as far as Im Tirtzu's legislation---but it moves in precisely that direction.
Daniel Sokatch, head of the New Israel Fund, a U.S. organization that donates around $25 million a year to about 100 progressive and civil rights organizations in Israel, called the bill "an ugly anti-democratic piece of legislation that does not provide any more transparency than already exists." The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, met with Justice Minister Shaked to express American "concerns" about her legislation and suggested that the bill could undercut Israel's standing as a thriving democracy.
The irony is that Justice Minister Shaked and Prime Minister Netanyahu welcome foreign funds to influence Israeli policy and opinion, as long as those funds go to the right wing. In a series of investigative reports for Haaretz, Uri Blau shows how American donors gave settlements in the West Bank more than $220 million over the past five years---donations that went through tax-exempt American nonprofit organizations. Despite the longstanding U.S. Government view that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace, at least 50 organizations in the U.S. are involved in raising money for settlements.
Blau found that American donations fund everything from air conditioning for settlers to payments to the families of convicted Jewish terrorists. Among the recipients of tax exempt American donations is Honenu, a right-wing legal aid group that has provided stipends to Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The yeshiva whose rabbis wrote "The King's Torah," which states, among other things, that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" only applies to killing other Jews, also benefits from tax deductible contributions from the U.S. Israel's leading newspaper, a right-wing paper given away free, is funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Naomi Paiss, Vice President for public affairs at the New Israel Fund, notes that, "The current governing coalition, the most hard line in Israel's history, has made it clear that it will do everything possible to stifle dissent...The treatment of organizations with unpopular missions and activities is the canary in the coal mine of democracy. We who defend Israel as a liberal democracy must make clear to our counterparts in Jerusalem that we see through the hypocrisy and double-dealing and take a stand for an honest, free and democratic Israel."
The assault on human rights organizations and other progressive NGOs is only one example of Israel's retreat from democracy. Prime Minister Netanyahu is supporting legislation which provides for the expulsion of a member of the Knesset if that member expresses opposition to Israel's existence as a "Jewish and democratic state," supports armed struggle against Israel or incites racism. Two of the actions, incitement to racism and support for terror, already constitute a criminal offense. Dr. Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, points out that, "The third ground, opposition to a Jewish and democratic state is extremely vague---and could theoretically be invoked to disqualify religious MKs advocating a state based on halacha (not democratic) or secular MKs advocating the separation of religion and state (allegedly not Jewish). In practical terms, however, the main trigger for the legislation and virtually the only situation in which it might be used would be against Arab Knesset members allegedly expressing support for terror---a criminal offense...This damaging Israeli proposal will only intensify political witch-hunting and widen the Jewish-Arab divide...It will further erode Israeli democracy, undermining the crucial defense of its minorities and their untrammeled representation in the Knesset."
Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset Uri Avnery laments the growing assaults on free speech and democracy. He writes that, "Benjamin Netanyahu is totally absorbed in enacting a new law that would be a watershed in the history of Israel. This law will enable 90 of the 120 Knesset members to evict any or all of the members from the Knesset altogether. The grounds for such a decision are nebulous: supporting 'terrorism'---by speech as well as by deed, denying the Jewish character of the state, and such. Who decides? The majority, of course. The immediate impetus for proposing this bill was provided by the three Arab Knesset members who visited the parents of Arab 'terrorists' in annexed East Jerusalem. They had a good pretext---to help them obtain the bodies of their sons, who had been shot dead on the spot. But the obvious reason was to pay their respects."
Immune from Prosecution
Avnery points out that, "By law Knesset members are immune from prosecution for any act committed in the line of their duties. For Knesset members to visit their voters in such circumstances may be such an act. Therefore, a new law is necessary....Netanyahu was brought up in the U.S. He most surely has been taught there that democracy does not mean only the rule of the majority. Adolf Hitler was probably supported by the majority. Democracy means that the majority respects the rights of minorities, including the right of free speech. The right of free speech does not mean the right to express popular views...Free speech means the right to utter views that are detested by almost everyone...Everyone understands that the right of 90 to evict 30 is a threat to evict Arabs from the Knesset...This is not a law against 'terrorist' sympathizes. It is a law against the Arab minority. The Knesset will be Jewish, pure and simple. It will be a Jewish state without being democratic."
Even without such legislation, in Avnery's view, "Israel is one of the least democratic countries in the world to which Israel wants to belong. In the West Bank, which is governed by Israel, there live about 2.5 million people who are denied any civil and human rights. We believed for a time that Israel could remain 'the only democracy in the Middle East' while holding large occupied territories. The Arab citizens of Israel proper constitute some 20% of the population. These were the remnants of a large majority, most of whom had fled or were evicted. No country ever profited by throwing out its minorities. Nazi Germany threw out its Jewish scientists, some of whom went to the U.S. and built the atomic bomb for Americs. Long before that, the Catholic kings of France threw out the Protestant Huegenots, who emigrated to Prussia and turned a small garrison town named Berlin into a world center of industry and culture. If two thousand years have not taught us anything, when will we ever learn?"
Those in Israel who are committed to democracy are concerned about current trends. The Jerusalem Report (Feb. 8, 2016), in an article headlined "Democracy Under Threat," declares that, "After less than a year of the most right-wing administration in the country's history, Israel's robust democracy finds itself under severe pressure. Over the past several months, government ministers have made a succession of illiberal moves widely perceived as antithetical to democratic freedoms and principles. These include proposed legislation to silence and delegitimize critics, recurrent incitement against the Israeli-Arab minority, more nationalistic and less universal content in the school curriculum, artistic censorship by threatening to withhold funds from state-financed theaters, greater government control over the media and toying with new forms of religious coercion."
Extremist Hilltop Settler Youth
In the occupied West Bank, argues The Jerusalem Report, these challenges "...exist in heightened fashion. In the most obvious case, hilltop settler youth, with an anti-democratic Kingdom of Judea ideology (aimed at replacing Israel with a non-democratic Halakha-based Jewish kingdom), carry out potentially lethal attacks on anything not Jewish. Far more dangerous to Israel's democracy, however, is the way the mainstream settler movement, which elevates the Jewish at the expense of the democratic, has no compunction about maintaining an indefinite coercive occupation, has infiltrated the corridors of power..."
Examples of anti-democratic and racist extremism are growing. One Knesset member, Bezalel Smotrich, has said that the burning to death of three members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family last July by a settler youth or youths was not terrorism, since, in his view, Jews by definition cannot perpetrate acts of terror. He described the killers as "well-intentioned youngsters gone astray." In a recent Knesset speech, Smotrich declared, "We will annex the West Bank, whether you like it or not." In March, Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef delivered a sermon in which he argued that Jewish law directs the state to expel all non-Jews from Israel. He adds some qualifiers: if they accept the Noahide laws, they may remain because they will be useful as servants to Jews. He suggested that Saudi Arabia would be a good place to send Palestinians and declared, "According to Halacha it's forbidden for goyim to live...in Israel...A foreigner residing here who accepts the seven Noahide Laws may live here...They will serve us. That's why we permit them to remain in the land. The previous chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef (Yitzhak Yosef's father) ruled that Palestinianx were "donkeys" meant to serve Jews.
In December, the Education Ministry banned Dorit Rabinyan's novel "Borderlife" for teaching in high schools because it tells a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. The ministry stated that, "Large segments of society see such relations as a threat to their separate identities." The ministry is also revising its civics textbook to prioritize "Jewish dimensions," which critics say will be at the expense of democratic values. The right-wing Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, summed up his approach: "The education system should not promote values contrary to those of the state." Culture Minister Miri Regev has threatened to withhold funding for the Israeli Arab Al-Midan theater because it staged a play based on letters by a jailed terrorist and from an Arab children's theater in Jaffa because it's director, Norman Issa, refused to perform in the occupied territories.
Control Over the Media
Another issue for Israeli democracy is the manner in which Prime Minister Netanyahu is extending his control over the media. He is not only prime minister but minister of communications, responsible for changes in public broadcasting. The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), with its institutional culture of free criticism, is to be replaced by a new body, funded directly by the government and not an independent license fee. As part of this reform, a new TV channel, Channel 20, has emerged with a strong right-wing, religious-settler bias. When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin appeared at a conference also attended by Breaking The Silence, Channel 20, on its Facebook page, accused him of "spitting in the face of IDF soldiers."
According to The Jerusalem Report, "Perhaps the biggest threat to Israeli democracy in the longer term is the close pact he (Netanyahu) has forged with the national religious settler movement...What that amounts to is an unshakeable core policy of perpetuating the occupation...The costs for Israel could be high: the emergence of an illiberal and intolerant Israel could lead to the loss of many of the best and brightest to more democratic pastures; it could also lead to the loss of international legitimacy and support..."
The Israeli public appears to be supportive of the moves away from democracy initiated by the Netanyahu government, and racist attitudes appear to be growing. Almost half of Israeli Jews are in favor of transferring or expelling the state's Arab population, according to the Pew Research Center's report in March. At the same time, 45% of Israeli Jews say that a Palestinian state cannot exist alongside Israel. Tamar Herrmann, a professor at the Open University of Israel, who advised on the study, said that Israelis understand the "transfer" of Arabs as applying to Arab citizens of Israel. The word "transfer" in this context means "forceful expulsion," she said, "putting them on trucks and sending them away" across the Jordan River to Jordan.
Support For Expulsion
Alan Cooperman, the Pew study's lead author, says that support for expulsion comports with other data points in the survey such as the fact that four out of five Israeli Jews say Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews. The survey also found that 60% of Israeli Jews believe God gave the land to them, and that majorities of religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox feel that Jewish law should be the law of the state.
The growth of racism in Israel was highlighted in a report in the London Daily Mail (March 17, 2016) about the group Lehava, which is engaged in a battle against religious intermarriage and interfaith relationships of any kind. The article's headline reads: "'Dial one if you know a Jew dating an Arab,' shocking Israeli campaign group set up 'hot line' to inform on 'traitors diluting the Jewish race'----and to split up model Bar Rafaeli and Leonardo DiCaprio."
Lehava, the Daily Mail reports, "...believes relationships between a Jew and a non-Jew is a Biblical sin. Racist extremists who set up a 'hotline' to inform on Jews in a relationship with 'Arabs' and who targeted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are openly peddling hate and violence---but the Israeli government won't act. Lehava hunts down people sleeping with 'goys'---or non-Jews---then 'persuades them to separate, attacks Christians as 'vampires' and 'bloodsuckers' and is justifying attacks on churches...It accused supermodel Bar Rafaeli of 'diluting the Jewish race' if she did no split up with Leonardo DiCaprio."
"Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land"
Despite being under investigation for four years, Lehava and its followers operate in the central square of Jerusalem where they openly incite violence every Thursday night. Its leader, Benzi Gopstein, boasted to The Daily Mail that he receives ten calls a day from Jewish people informing on friends dating non-Jews. Founded in 2009, Lehava means "the flame" and is also an acronym in Hebrew for "Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land." The group has also launched campaigns against renting apartments to Arabs or hiring them in the workplace.
A report by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, states that Lehava "advocates hatred of Arabs in Israel and is based on racially-oriented and alarmist incitement." Benzi Gopstein, a follower of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane since the age of 14, now leads a group similar to that of Kahane. While Kahane's Kach Party was made illegal because of its racism, Lehava, in the different environment prevailing in Israel today, is free to pursue its goals. Occasionally, it goes too far. In 2014, three Lehava members were arrested for setting fire to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and spray painting, "There is no coexistence with cancer," "Death To Arabs," and "Kahane was right."
In January, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that Israel's fast-moving expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands "raises honest questions about Israel's long-term intentions" and commitment to a two-state solution." Mr. Shapiro also said that, "Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities, too much vigilantism goes unchecked, and at times there seems to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians."
Ambassador is Bitterly Attacked
Ambassador Shapiro was bitterly attacked both by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who called his statement "unacceptable and incorrect," and his former aide, Aviv Bushinsky, who said on television that, "To put it bluntly, it was a statement typical of of a little Jew boy." Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew who speaks Hebrew and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Editorially, The New York Times (Jan. 22, 2016) declared: "The criticism of Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted. Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its greater rights and protections. Israel is moving quickly to establish facts on the ground that preclude a Palestinian state, leaving Palestinians increasingly marginalized and despairing."
In Israel, many prominent voices are increasingly critical of the government's policies. The respected author Amos Oz says that he will no longer participate in official events sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He calls the Netanyahu government "the most militant, right-wing government Israel has ever had." He referred to the "Hilltop youth," Jewish settlers who commit attacks on Palestinians and Christian and Muslim places of worship in the occupied territories, as "Hebrew neo-Nazis...They're not Nazis, but they have a great deal in common with neo-Nazi hooligans all over the world: desecrating churches and mosques, synagogues and cemeteries, violently attacking foreigners; filled with hatred and xenophobia; aspiring for some despotic central regime to replace what they regard as anarchy. These are the syndromes of neo-Nazism."
Blind Eye To Anti-democratic And Racist Trends
The organized American Jewish community has largely turned a blind eye to these anti-democratic and racist trends in Israel and continued to provide unquestioning support to the Israeli government. Israelis who seek to maintain a democratic society and continue to work for the establishment of a two-state solution have noticed. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Chemi Shalev decries "the deafening silence of most American Jews in response to the waves of chauvinistic anti-democratic legislation and incitement in which Israel is increasingly drowning."
Israeli commentators noted that when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, some delegates objected and walked out in protest of comments Trump had made about Muslims, Mexicans and others. At the same time, AIPAC continues to welcome and embrace Benjamin Netanyahu. In an article with the headline, "Protesting bigots and demagogues at AIPAC? Don't stop at Trump. Call out Netanyahu too," (Haaretz, March 20, 2016), columnist Roy Isacowitz writes: "Many American Jews are angered at the prospect of Donald Trump addressing the AIPAC conference...which would make perfect sense if not for the fact that the American community...has been sitting in silence and showing complacency in the face of demagoguery and racism for years already, without feeling the need to stand up and do something about it. AIPAC, that bastion of Jewish values, has gone even further. Rather than sitting in complacent silence, it has given repeated and resounding standing ovations, year after year, to Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli demagogues and racists, who not only talk the talk, as Trump has done, but walk the walk."
Isacowitz writes that, "Israel has already built the wall that Trump only talks about. it has blighted the lives of millions of Muslims, as Trump says he would like to do. Its behavior has been far more bellicose than anything Trump has exhibited so far and its racism is not only more extreme but a lot more deadly. The supporters of Israeli Trumpism have assassinated a prime minister, gunned down worshippers in a mosque, burned a Palestinian baby to cinders in its bed and committed thousands of other racist atrocities. But when the Israeli Trump-in-chief arrives in Washington, he is feted as the true representative of Jewish values...What perversion allows American Jews---or the majority of them it would seem---to regard Donald Trump as the antithesis of their Jewish values and Benjamin Netanyahu as their exemplar?"
AIPAC Is "Destroying Israel"
In Isacowitz's view, American Jews, or certainly those who speak in their name, have adopted "a value system that exempts Israel from every value it purports to hold dear." Another distinguished Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, argues that, "AIPAC is destroying Israel, not safeguarding it." He writes in Haaretz (March 20, 2016) of the approximately 20,000 people who gathered at AIPAC's March meeting in Washington that "almost all are not friends of Israel, despite their organization's name and pretensions."
Levy believes that, "AIPAC may be the organization that has caused the greatest damage to Israel. It corrupted Israel, taught it that everything is permissible to it. It made sure America would cover up and restrain itself over everything. That it would never demand anything in exchange. That Uncle Sam would pay and keep mum. That the supply of intoxicating drugs would continue. America is the dealer, and AIPAC the pusher...America's second most powerful lobby, after the NRA, is considered 'pro-Israel.' But it is pro an...aggressive, occupying...and nationalist Israel. With friends like these. Israel doesn't need enemies in the U.S. The day AIPAC weakens. Israel will grow stronger. It will be forced to stand on its own two feet and be more moral."
Israel, the recipient of more U.S. aid than any other country, is, Levy points out, hardly a weak and poverty stricken country in need of such aid: "The residents of the world's most financially supported state, which is also the best at whining and playing the victim, live in a country that is ranked 11th in the U.N.'s world happiness report, four places above the country of its funders. Is Israel the neediest country in the world? After all, it's also a military power, in a region where there are virtually no real armies left. So why should all that weaponry go to Israel, of all countries?...Thank you very much, dear brethren from AIPAC for bringing us to this point. Without your efforts, we would be in a better and much different place today."
Culture War In Israel
Ori Nir, a former Washington bureau chief of Haaretz and The Forward, now associated with Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the Jewish Peace Now movement, notes that many of his American friends are bewildered with recent developments in Israel. They ask him, "What the hell is going on there, have they totally lost it?" He responds that, "...what seems like collective madness in Israel is not. What you are witnessing these days...the witch hunt against progressive non-profits and liberal culture icons, the efforts to quash dissent through legislation, the campaign to thrust chauvinistic content (including straight-out lies) into the civics curriculum, attempts to exclude and demean Israel's Arab citizens, lobbing accusations of treason at those who publicly oppose or even criticize government policies---all these are manifestations of war. this is a culture war, a civil war Israel-style."
The silence from American Jews as the culture war in Israel proceeds, saddens Ori Nir. "American friends of Israel have admirably come to help her at past times of crisis, particularly at times of war. My friends, this is a time of war...There is a war being fought against what most American Jews consider to be 'their' Israel...This war is led by members of Israel's own government...You can say that Israelis got the government they voted for...You can say that change in Israel should come from within...Fine. but then can you really claim to be a caring friend of Israel? ...If you indeed care about Israel, it is time to speak up and act. Your natural allies in Israel need you."
Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, agrees that the American Jewish establishment has been silent in the face of the growing assault upon democratic values in Israel. She notes that, "Many of us treat an assault on liberal values in the Israeli context differently than if it happened here. What if the U.S. Government tried to ban a book from schools because it promoted racial intermarriage? What if a desperate Republican Party candidate appealed to his white constituents on Election Day by warning of 'droves' of Hispanics swarming to the polls? Yet when the Israeli government banned such a book, or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu employed such a cynical tactic, there was a response from predictable sources, but no lasting campaign of outcry."
Idolatry: Substituting Israel for God
More and more American Jews are coming to the view that unquestioning support for Israel and making it the center of organized Jewish life has been a form of idolatry, with Israel replacing God and Judaism's universal moral and ethical values. Beyond this, remaining silent as democracy erodes in Israel and the occupation continues, makes American Jews complicit in policies which, in the long run, are damaging to Israel itself.
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University and co-author with Liel Leibovitz of "The Chosen Peoples: America,Israel and The Ordeals of Divine Election," spoke on March 15, 2016 at the Center For Jewish Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He makes the point that, "When Israel became an illegal occupier of the territories it conquered in 1967, it forfeited its universalist mantle. It made Israel look like a less compelling answer to the immense question of what might be left of chosenness...Israel interpreted chosenness as a title to land and a warrant for defying world opinion and international law. It justified its aggressions as defenses...Israeli exceptionalism abandoned the high moral ground...Israel becomes steadily more illiberal and thus more offensive to Jews who remain among America's most liberal populations. Israel now, simultaneously, claims the privilege of victimhood and the right to be honored as democratic even as it abandons liberality. This is a hell of a climb down from tikkun olam, the injunction to repair the world and welcome the stranger. It offers little solace or cohesion for American Jews."
The division between Israel and American Jews, particularly young people, is growing, while the Jewish establishment's uncritical support and persistence in claiming that Israel is, somehow, "central" to Judaism continues. Todd Gitlin notes that, "By now, a growing minority of younger American Jews are so intensely angry at the actually existing, increasingly illiberal Israel...as to reject 'Zion' as a dirty word and endorse the whole bundle of BDS politics...Not many liberal American Jews go so far, but the gulf that has opened up between Israel and American Jews will be a fundamental feature of the Jewish landscape for a long time...The more the American Jewish establishment colluded with Netanyahu, the more damage the Israeli right does to the prospects for peace."
It is not only young people who are disillusioned with events in Israel and the manner in which American Jewish organizations make them complicit in developments which violate their ideas of what Judaism's moral and ethical values embody. Rabbi David Gordis, a former executive at the American Jewish Committee, former president of Hebrew College and a former Vice President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes in "Tikkun" (Feb. 23, 2016) that Israel is "a failure," and the Zionist dream has "curdled into Jewish selfishness." He laments that, "After a life and career devoted to the Jewish community and to Israel, I conclude that in every important way, Israel has failed to realize its promise for me."
Rabbi Gordis, now a Senior Scholar at the State University of New York at Albany, says that from Israel's creation, he believed in Israel but that the spiral of that society into occupation and Jewish particularism has caused him to change his mind. It is, in his view, a political, spiritual and political failure: "Israel is distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behavior rather than the best."
His indictment includes American Jewish leaders: "The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire...The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career...On the positive side, Israel's accomplishments have been remarkable. Israel has created a thriving economy, and has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced and the needy. Israel has generated a rich and diverse cultural life and it's scientific and educational achievements have been exemplary. In spite of these achievements, however, Israel in my view has gone astray. And it is in the area for which Israel was created, as a Jewish state, embodying and enhancing Jewish values,that I see this failure."
Two State Solution "Impossible"
Israel's occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration, notes Gordis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu's "facts on the ground" steps "make a two-state solution impossible...Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal, and the visionary...Most depressing of all is that I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire...Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure."
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of "Tikkun," says that he published the article by Gordis because he shares his views: "We publish it with the same sadness that Gordis expresses...because many of us at 'Tikkun' magazine shared the same hopes he expresses for an Israel that would make Jews proud by becoming an embodiment of what is best in Jewish tradition, history and ethics, rather than a manifestation of all the psychological and spiritual damage that has been done to our people, which now acts as an oppressor to the Palestinian people."
In the presidential debate in Brooklyn in April, Sen Bernie Sanders called for an "even-handed" U.S.policy in the Middle East. In response to a question about whether Israel's response to missiles from Gaza was "disproportionate," he responded: "Of course, Israel has the right not only to defend itself but to live in peace and security. But in Gaza there were 10,000 wounded civilians and 1,500 killed. Was that a disproportionate attack? The answer, I believe, is it was. As somebody who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."
"Courage" to Criticize Israel
Sen. Sanders criticized his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for her talk to AIPAC in which, he pointed out, there was no concern expressed for the needs of Palestinians. "There comes a time," he declared, "if we are going to pursue justice and peace that we are going to have to say that (Prime Minister) Netanyahu is not right all of the time. You spoke on the Middle East and barely mentioned the Palestinians." The audience cheered at these remarks.
Some said that it took "courage" for Sen. Sanders to criticize Israel. But in expressing the views he did, Sanders was hardly alone. Indeed, The New York Times (April 16, 2016) carried a front page story with the headline, "Chiding Israel, Sanders Highlights Jewish Split." According to the Times, "Jewish Democrats, like the rest of the party, have been struggling for years over the appropriate level of criticism when it comes to Israel's policies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But that debate burst onto a big national stage...thanks to Mr. Sanders, the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in history. Mr. Sanders's comments...buoyed the liberal and increasingly vocal Democrats who believe that a frank discussion within the party has been muzzled by an older, more conservative leadership that is suspicious of criticism of Israel."
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the progressive pro-Israel lobbying group whose more critical view of the Israeli government has gained influence on Capitol Hill, said Sanders's comments were "very different from the stale talking points that have dominated those types of discussions before and contributed to a meaningful redefinition of what it means to be pro-Israel." Peter Beinart, a leading voice in the liberal Zionist movement, said: "The roar of the crowd was telling. A Democratic Party dominated by progressive millennials, Aftican-Americans and Latinos will gradually defect more and more from the AIPAC-Bibi line. Those aren't their values. What Bernie said...and the crowd's response were a sign of things to come." Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a growing organization that advocates pressuring Israel with the threat of boycotts, called the Sanders remarks "heartening," and said,"Today showed that the movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest political levels."
Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk
It is not being a friend of Israel's long-term best interests to provide uncritical support for a government which is in the process of turning its back on humane Jewish values and making peace with the Palestinians unlikely by continuing to settle land which both the U.S., the international community, and previous Israeli governments believe must constitute a future Palestinian state. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. Those who devote their time and energy to defending Israel's retreat from democracy and the peace process aren't friends.
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as
Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author
of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of
Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.