Israel and American liberals

No doubt most American Jewish liberals are disgusted with President Trump – not only his administration’s policies, but also his insolence and dishonesty.

A Trump supporter in a protest march against white nationlism    (photo credit: JOE PENNEY/ REUTERS)
A Trump supporter in a protest march against white nationlism
(photo credit: JOE PENNEY/ REUTERS)
A question many observers are posing in the aftermath of the polarized September election is whether the new government will be able to forge better ties with American Jewish liberals, now that Benjamin Netanyahu’s term as prime minister may finally be coming to an end. That the question must be asked in the first place should trouble anyone who cares about Israel’s future.
I am painfully aware of the growing estrangement from Israel within progressive Jewish circles, where comments such as, “It’s getting harder and harder to support Israel” have become commonplace. From the perspective of these self-identified Jewish liberals, Netanyahu was largely responsible for Israel’s rightward drift, enacting policies that harmed the country’s democratic character, weakened American bipartisan support for Israel, and undermined prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For some, the final straw was Netanyahu’s shortsighted decision to bar US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country, thereby (ironically) amplifying their fringe pro-BDS views while alienating those working to preserve Democratic Party support for the Jewish state.
Add to this settlement expansion deep inside the West Bank, legislative proposals to castrate the Supreme Court, the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on personal status issues (e.g., marriage, conversion), and, well, you get the picture.
And therein lies a deeper concern – American Jews judging Israel exclusively through the narrow prism of Israeli politics. I, too, am troubled by Israeli leaders whose actions potentially weaken Israel as a democracy, or do damage to Israel’s international standing. The difference, however, is that my commitment to Israel has always been unconditional, irrespective of whether I agree with Israel’s government.
No doubt most American Jewish liberals are disgusted with President Trump – not only his administration’s policies, but also his insolence and dishonesty. Yet, do they no longer love and support America?
It shouldn’t be any different with Israel, even when we believe some of its leaders’ decisions are controversial and ill-advised. Israel shouldn’t be defined solely – or even primarily – by the previous government’s policies (some of which are unlikely to change under a national unity coalition), or by the seemingly intractable conflict with the Palestinians.
After all, there’s so much more to Israel’s essence that transcends the political realm.
To begin with, virtually every part of the country – Jerusalem, Masada, Ein Gedi, Mount Gilboa – serves as a repository for our collective Jewish memory, an affirmation of our roots in this land. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, wrote, the Land of Israel “is not something apart from the soul of the Jewish people… [but] bound organically to its very life and inner being.”
Then there’s the miracle of modern Israel. After two millennia of persecution, expulsions and pogroms, and after the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust, the rebirth of Israel in our historic homeland provided the Jewish people with the security that only a nation of our own could ensure. Let’s not forget that against all odds, the Zionist enterprise (admittedly, despite mistakes made along the way) gathered in and absorbed a culturally diverse people scattered to the four corners of the earth, many of whom came with literally nothing but the shirt on their back.
With all its challenges, Israel today is still worthy of our unqualified support. It’s a country whose far-reaching contributions to the world – for example, in medicine, high tech, water and agriculture – are greatly disproportionate to its small population of only nine million.
Israel is the hospital that provided urgent medical care to hundreds of Syrians who suffered severe blast wounds from mines and rocket fire during the Syrian civil war. Israel is the IDF medical and rescue team that set up a field hospital in Haiti after the Caribbean nation was devastated by a massive earthquake, and in 12 days treated over a thousand Haitians. Israel is the NGO that has installed solar technology in dozens of African villages, bringing clean water and electricity to more than one million people who have endured extreme drought and hunger.
We may strongly – and openly – disapprove when the Israeli government authorizes plans for new homes to be built in isolated Jewish settlements, or implements measures intended to suppress the Arab vote, or cancels a plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Still, these misguided decisions can’t erase Israel’s extraordinary achievements.
American Jewish liberals are right to call out Trump and Netanyahu for making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics. But if they abandon the Jewish State because the new government turns out to be too much like the previous one, the schism they’ll be helping to create could become unbridgeable.
The writer is director of community relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland