Of all the absurdities in the relationship between Israel and American Jews, the latest is one of the biggest: “I won’t support Israel if it isn’t democratic.”
It’s a reflection of the results of Israel’s election last month, putting Binyamin Netanyahu in the position of forming a government with extremist Jews who can objectively be called criminals, racists, and even terrorists. (For example, Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben-Gvir, who as national security minister in the new government will oversee the police, bragged in a 2015 interview that he had been indicted by Israeli prosecutors 53 times and convicted seven times – reportedly on charges of obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties, rioting, incitement to racism, and multiple charges of supporting a terrorist organization and possession of propaganda material for a terrorist organization.)
Even so, the idea of conditional support for Israel raises questions about the whole relationship between the two sides.
The anomaly of the “conditional support” concept is illustrated best by one of its proponents – Abe Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, for decades the foremost fighter in the battle against antisemitism in the US and abroad.
So, this legitimate hero of the fight against Jew-hatred would withdraw his support from the only Jewish state in the world, the one place that offers instant refuge to victims and potential victims of antisemitism? And this at a time when Jew-hatred and violence are sweeping across the US, legitimized by celebrities, sports figures, and a former US president? Really?
Abe and others don’t like the results of the Israeli election. Neither do lots of Israelis. But the fact is, that’s how the election turned out. It’s democratic by definition.
Here’s how I replied to one American Jewish critic on antisocial media:
“Making your support of Israel conditional on the outcome of an election is not support at all – it’s hypocrisy. Over here in actual Israel, those of us who are horrified by the outcome of this election are doubling down to fix it next time. We still believe in our country. I don’t think it’s too much to ask you to do the same.”
But even that isn’t the main issue. Some fundamentals must change now.
Let’s start here:
Is there another American group – ethnic, national, religious, or racial – that is so intimately involved in the workings of another country, the way Jews are with Israel? Do descendants of Chinese immigrants demonstrate over Chinese abuses of human rights? Syrians? Koreans? Do Japanese Americans pore over the inner workings of the Japanese government? Do Mexican Americans complain publicly about the role of armed gangs of drug merchants in their former nation’s daily life?
Of course not. To a large extent, they just left their old countries behind. When it comes to Israel and Jews, they don’t even have to have lived here in order to claim a role in what is happening in Israel. For decades, Israel has welcomed such involvement, even encouraged it. Many American Jews feel so invested that they vote for US political candidates on the basis of how they feel about the Jewish state.
That needs to end. Considering the antisemitism crisis they’re facing, American Jews should be more concerned about how candidates relate to them than how they relate to Israel.
This is no longer 1973. Israel is not in need of bailouts or charity. Israel has one of the strongest economies in the world, faring better than most during the 2008 banking collapse and the current fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Militarily, Israel is a legitimate strategic partner of the US.
Israel has its problems, to be sure. Income distribution, high housing prices, crowded highways, and over-burdened health care and education systems, just to name a few. But these are in the category of first-world problems.
Those domestic issues are Israel’s to solve. All we need is the right government, the right leaders, and the right agenda.
Getting in the way of that is the security issue. The Palestinians have sabotaged all efforts to solve the problem by creating a Palestinian state, turning down viable offers, and destroying Israel’s peace camp in the process. This isn’t the place to go over that again, but the reality is that much of the Middle East has moved on from the Palestinians.
In contrast, antisemites have glommed on to the Palestinian issue as a way of bashing Israel and Jews in general. BDS (boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel), for example, really has little to do with Palestinians and everything to do with Jew hatred.
The Palestinian issue still gets a disproportionate amount of attention here. There’s a mini-surge of Palestinian terrorism these days, scaring people with memories of the awful days of the Second Intifada two decades ago when buses were blowing up and hundreds were killed. Clever politicians know how to tap into that fear, and the result is the outcome of last month’s election. But the fact remains – significant numbers of Israelis strongly oppose measures like changing the Law of Return to withdraw recognition of non-Orthodox Jews, emasculating the Supreme Court, or trampling on the rights of minorities.
If the incoming government takes such steps – and there is no guarantee that it will – there will be a backlash, demonstrations in the streets, clashes, and, sooner or later, another election.
That’s how it works in real democracies. The people have the right to get it wrong, and then make it right.
That leaves Israel as the self-proclaimed defender of the Jewish people, and that’s where American Jews come in. Instead of carping about Israel’s election, they could ask for Israel’s help in the fight against antisemitism. Here are a few possibilities:
- Send hundreds of Israeli emissaries not just to Jewish communities, but also to neighborhoods and cities, with projects to show what Israel is and who its people really are.
- Help with security around Jewish institutions, certainly with planning, and also with actual implementation if the US government can be persuaded to allow armed Israelis to carry out those functions.
- Increase educational programs about Jews and Israel, led by a joint team of Israeli and American experts, aimed at both Jewish youth and non-Jewish communities, including universities.
All the wailing on antisocial media accomplishes little. Instead, the two sides need to take the initiative in the fight against antisemitism. They can work together to take the air out of the argument that Israel is the real problem, and the Jews as a whole are to blame.
Standing in the way of that are public statements from American Jews criticizing Israel. Even if well meant, like Abe Foxman’s, they are convenient ammunition for the haters to fire back, and they do.
So, let’s reconfigure the relationship. Less philanthropy, less moralizing. More partnership, more cooperation, more joint planning to fight the real enemy.
Just to be clear – the real enemy is not this or that Israeli politician or government. We Israelis will deal with that. The real enemy is antisemitism. Let’s fight it together.