US, Israeli Jews need to come together, not criticize each other - opinion

What both Israeli and American Jews need now is not to fly apart but come together. This is the best way to silence the extremist voices on both sides.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)

There is currently a great deal of talk in the media about an impending confrontation between American Jews and Israel due to the composition of the new Israeli government.

This right-wing coalition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, includes elements of the far-right, such as politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. American Jews are right to be concerned about Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who advocate policies regarding Jewish identity and religion, as well as Israel’s judiciary, that are and should be unacceptable to the vast majority of American Jews. As a mostly liberal community, it is not unreasonable for American Jews to prefer an Israeli government that reflects their deeply-held values.

But American Jews can have confidence that their concerns will be addressed. Netanyahu has said publicly that he will be the one to set policy and before the Knesset pledged that Israel will not become a state ruled by religious law. He has also stated that his government will represent the liberal Right rather than the far-right.

Netanyahu’s record is clear: For well over a decade, he has proven himself to be an assertive leader who can keep his cabinet in line. There is no reason to think he will not do so again.

In addition, the far-right is in fact deceptively weak. They know quite well that without Netanyahu they could not have achieved power and it is very unlikely they will directly challenge him if he says no to the extreme policies they advocate.

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

American Jews don't want a confrontation with Israel

It is also important to note that it is simply not true that American Jews want or desire a confrontation with Israel – quite the opposite. Indeed, their very expressions of concern prove this. Except for a handful of fringe Jewish anti-Zionists on the Left and religious extremists on the far-right who rejoice at the rise of extreme political forces, American Jews are criticizing members of the incoming government because they want to continue and deepen their relationship with Israel. This is precisely why they are concerned and troubled about what may transpire.

Moreover, while American Jews have the right to express their belief that the new government should not go too far, this cuts both ways. American Jews also have an obligation not to go too far. They should not demand that Israelis conform precisely to American Jews’ own political beliefs and ideology. Israelis do not demand this of American Jews and American Jews should not demand it of Israelis, even as both sides have a perfect right to express their concerns.

AMERICAN JEWS also need not sever their ties to Israel over politics because they have a much better option: If they do not like the state of Israeli politics, they should work to change it to the extent they can and the extent to which it is appropriate. Israel is a democracy and there is no shortage of options for principled activism that can be undertaken by American Jews in a sympathetic and supportive manner.

Perhaps most importantly, the vocal minority on either side of this issue has no right to and must not be allowed to define the terms of the discourse. When they do everyone suffers, as we have seen in our own politics in the US. Our silent majority has been drowned out by extremist voices on the Right and the Left, leading to deep and lasting divisions that have harmed American society and American democracy.

There is also the simple but uncomfortable fact that undue criticism of the new Israeli government could cause enormous collateral damage, which neither side desires. At a point when antisemitism is skyrocketing in America with the extremist wings of both the Left and the Right, along with major cultural figures, stoking the fires of the world’s oldest hatred, the polarization of the American Jewish community over any issue could have dire consequences for American Jews in general. This should not silence legitimate criticism but it is a reality and must be taken into account by any responsible person.

Given all of this, it should be clear that this is not the time for fostering divisions and resentment between American and Israeli Jews. What we require above all in the face of the rising tide of antisemitism is solidarity and mutual engagement in the struggle we face. Many American Jews may feel they have reason to fear what their Israeli brethren have voted for but they should remember the words of Elie Wiesel, who once said, “When Jews are together, I am never afraid.”

What both Israeli and American Jews need now is not to fly apart but come together. “All of Israel is responsible for one another,” says the Talmud. This is the best way to silence the extremist voices on both sides and ensure that we retain our sense of solidarity and mutual affection.

The writer is president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the American Council for World Jewry.