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Don’t Give Up

Why liberal Jews must not abandon the fight for Israel’s future

For decades now, the Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S. have been drifting apart. While almost three-quarters of American Jews continue to vote Democratic and a majority identify as liberal, the center in Israel has shifted to the right—in part organically, thanks to immigration and the experience of living in a state surrounded by hostile neighbors, and in part driven by a disciplined right-wing campaign to increase religiosity and nationalism.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies seem unconcerned about losing support from large swaths of American Jewry, content to rely on politically conservative Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. In enacting a law that chips away at Israel’s democratic foundations, and in embracing President Donald Trump, Netanyahu has further alienated American Jews. As the Israeli journalist Ben Caspit observed, Netanyahu views this cohort, with its predilection for assimilation, as being on the verge of extinction: “Soon they will be at the threshold of the abyss and will simply collapse from within and disappear,” Caspit writes. “They will not remain Jews. So it is a shame to waste our time. They are no longer part of us.”

The obvious question then for non-Orthodox, liberal Jewish Americans is why engage at all with an Israel led by people who are disowning us? Why not simply wash our hands of the state and walk away? Is the struggle to secure a liberal, Jewish, and democratic Israel really worth the heartache and frustration?

To the latter, my answer is a resounding “yes.” The fight over Israel’s future is a battle over what it means to be Jewish—a struggle for the very soul of the Jewish community globally. Opting out of that struggle, as many Jewish Americans exasperated with Israeli illiberalism seem inclined to do, means forfeiting that soul. The better response is to engage, countering the right-wing Israeli-American alliance with an equally strong alliance of American and Israeli liberals, fighting both in the United States and in the Middle East for states that accurately reflect deeply held Jewish values of tolerance.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state’s founders wrote that the new country “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture …”

These were promises grounded in the Jewish experience of living in the lands of others for centuries and knowing too well what it means to be a minority and to face discrimination and worse.

Like many countries—including the United States—Israel has fallen short of its aspirations. But for 70 years, large numbers of Israelis have fought to promote the values enshrined by Israel’s founders. In their fight to shape Israel’s direction and future, Israel’s liberals urgently need the support and engagement—rather than the anger and apathy—of like-minded Jewish people around the world.

The Israeli right wing, as Netanyahu has made clear, wishes nothing more than to see the liberal majority of Jews worldwide walk away from the fight. As Jewish liberals abandon the battlefield, Israeli hardliners have paired with their ideological soulmates in the U.S. and elsewhere to support their own institutions, educational foundations, think tanks, and politicians.

And while American Jewish leftists may think campaigns to “boycott” Israel put pressure on the state, the reality is that every time another liberal Jew decides to boycott or divest from Israel, that’s one less activist, one less dollar, actively engaging in Israeli politics from within and weighing in on the side of democracy and justice. It’s also one more talking point to rev up the Israeli right wing, which has managed to convince its base that the relatively marginal Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement somehow constitutes an existential threat to the one of the world’s strongest economies.

Liberal Jews around the world need to understand that a key reason Israel’s pro-peace, pro-democracy camp is so weak today is its inability to match the assistance the right receives from Jewish Americans in terms of funding, infrastructure, strategy, and messaging aid.

Of course, Israelis ultimately bear responsibility for shaping their own future. But American Jews who despair about Israel’s current course should acknowledge that if liberals supported their Israeli counterparts at levels comparable to their right-wing American cousins, the situation on the ground in Israel today would be starkly different.

Meanwhile, liberal Jews in institutional leadership roles in the American community have continued to buy into the anachronistic argument that those who don’t live in Israel have no right to speak or criticize. This institutional position has served the right well, as they rode to power in Israel on the strength of funds raised in America. It is also, by the way, a posture that helps explain the large numbers of young Jewish Americans disconnecting not only from Israel but from the organized Jewish community.

These days, as I speak across the country, I am asked with increasing frequency to give people hope about Israel’s future in the face of ever more troubling developments. My reply is that our people should have learned through the centuries that we can’t sit back waiting for hope and change. It’s on us to make it.

Perhaps that’s the upside of the stomach-churning political era we’re living through. The Trump presidency has unleashed an energetic opposition in the United States that understands the importance of fighting to realign national politics with our values. Perhaps those who are now marching in the streets and campaigning for change here will recognize that change in Israel also demands similar energy, engagement, and activism.

Rather than wash our hands of Israel, America’s liberal Jews should reach out to and support our natural political allies in the fight for Israel’s future. This is the fight of our generation to define the future of the Jewish people. The only people who benefit if liberals walk away are the anti-democratic and ethno-nationalist forces who threaten liberalism and democracy in the United States, in Israel, and all across the globe.