Israel’s Retreat From Democracy Creating Widening Division With American Jews

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2018, pp. 15-16

Israel and Judaism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Israel’s steady retreat from democracy, as dramatically manifested by the Knesset passing in July a new nation-state law—and its 51-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem—is widening the division between American Jews and the self-proclaimed “Jewish state.”

An opinion poll published in Israel in June shows a growing gap between Israelis and American Jews. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey found that 77 percent of Israelis approved of President Donald Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, while only 34 percent of American Jews did. Eighty-five percent of Israelis supported the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, upending decades of U.S. foreign policy and an international consensus that the city’s status should be decided through peace negotiations. Only 47 percent of American Jews supported the move. 

The poll also found that 59 percent of American Jews favor the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, compared to only 44 percent of Israelis. The two communities also differ sharply on matters of religion and state, particularly on the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs in Israel.

The vast majority of American Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative, the more liberal streams of Judaism. In Israel, however, Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings, preside over funerals or conduct conversions. American Jews overwhelmingly support religious freedom and separation of religion and state. Israel, quite to the contrary, is a theocracy. There is no such thing as civil marriage. If a Jew and non-Jew wish to marry, they must leave the country to do so. On one of the most controversial issues, regarding mixed gender prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, 73  percent of American Jews expressed support, compared with just 42 percent of Israelis.

In another recent survey, only a minority of Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area believe a Jewish state is important, and only a third sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. When 18- to 34-year-olds were asked if they were “very attached” to Israel, only 11 percent said yes, compared to 45 percent of those aged 50 and older. Only 40 percent of the young respondents said they were “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

Young people feel uncomfortable with the idea of a “Jewish state,” argues Prof. Steven Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, who conducted some of the recent surveys, because they have an aversion to “hard group boundaries,” and the notion that “there is a distinction between Jews and everyone else.” 

In June, five participants in the Birthright Israel program, which brings young people on expense-paid visits to Israel, walked out on the program to take a tour of the segregated West Bank city of Hebron, led by dissident IDF veterans from the group Breaking The Silence, which opposes Israel’s occupation. They wanted to see what the Birthright program, which is financed by such supporters of the occupation as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, wanted to keep from them.

The five female Birthright participants who visited Hebron urged their fellow American Jews to refuse to cooperate with pro-occupation propaganda enterprises like Birthright: “It is morally irresponsible to participate in an institution that is not willing to grapple with reality on the other side of the wall. That’s why we’re on our way to Hebron now.”

In his article “Walking Out Was The Right Thing To Do,” published in the July 3, 2018 issue of The Forward, Avrum Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency who now supports separation of religion and state, an end to the occupation, and equality for all those under Israeli control, regardless of background, wrote: “These five brave women seem to have realized something that I failed to see...Israel doesn’t have a public relations crisis, it has a moral crisis. Instead of being drawn into Sheldon Adelson’s free trip, these women insisted on acting according to our Jewish values. As Jewish women, they could have indulged their privilege and enjoyed a fun week in Israel. But instead, they chose to acknowledge their responsibility for the oppression of the Palestinians living under the occupation and heed their moral obligation to oppose it...These brave young people are fixing the relationship my generation has insisted on breaking. This is a sign of hope for an Israel without an occupation based on equality and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Particularly alienating to large numbers of American Jews was the passage in July by the Knesset of the nation-state law, which moves Israel even further away from being a democracy, which it has always claimed to be.

This legislation declares that the right of self-determination, once envisioned to include all within its borders, is “unique to the Jewish people.” Arabic has been eliminated as an official language. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a promoter of the law, accurately declared, “This is a defining moment for the State of Israel.”

Claiming that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” rather than a state of all its citizens, 20 percent of whom are not Jewish, has a number of problems. Israel, in fact, is not the “nation-state” of American Jews. According to Zionist philosophy, Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, and those living elsewhere are “in exile.” The Israeli government, with no mandate to do so, repeatedly speaks in the name of “the Jewish people,” the majority of whom are citizens of other countries. Whether Netanyahu likes it or not, the “homeland” of American Jews is the United States. The “homeland” of Jews in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and other countries, similarly, is not Israel.

Normalizing the occupation

In the view of critics in Israel, this law is another step toward full annexation of the West Bank. Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says, “This bill is not about law or justice, it is all about normalizing the Israeli occupation and blurring the difference between Israel and the occupied territories that are under military rule. The explicit aim of the bill is to make things easier for Israeli authorities that harm Palestinians, and to make it more difficult for them to achieve justice.”

Israelis used to think that their country could be both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Polling by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that this is now a minority position, with larger subsets saying the country must be either Jewish first or democratic first. Those who say Israel should be Jewish first overwhelmingly belong to the political right, which pushed through this legislation. But the majority of all Jews say that “crucial national decisions” like self-determination should be left to a Jewish majority.

Israel’s democracy has been declining for many years, according to the highly regarded index V-Dem, which tracks countries across a host of metrics. In the mid-1990s, Israel scored alongside South Korea and Jamaica. Today, it is seen on par with African democracies such as Namibia and Senegal, and below Tunisia, the Middle East’s highest-scored democracy. 

Many Jewish voices across the U.S. have sharply criticized the new law, including the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America. Even such stalwart defenders of Israel as the Anti-Defamation League and Alan Dershowitz have expressed dismay over the law’s passage. Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace declared: “Apartheid in Israel was just made official and it’s devastating. This is a...racist and discriminatory move to punish and rob Palestinians of their most basic rights and freedoms. And as a Jew and a rabbi, this runs counter to the Judaism that I love. This bill cements Israel as an apartheid state. Palestinians, no matter where they live, are controlled by an Israeli government that robs them of basic rights and freedoms.”

The respected Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose career has taken him to institutions such as La Scala in Milan, and led him to create, along with the late Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra (WED), which brings together young musicians from throughout the Middle East, both Arab and Israeli, responded to the new nation-state bill by saying, “The racist new law makes me ashamed to be an Israeli.” In articles in Haaretz and The Guardian, he characterized the law as “a very clear form of apartheid.” Israel, he lamented, has rejected the equality called for in its Declaration of Independence and “has passed a law that replaces the principle of equality and universal values with nationalism and racism.”

If the new nation-state law is, as Prime Minister Netanyahu declares, a “defining moment” for Israel, it is, sadly, defining itself as something other than a Western-style democracy which seeks peace with its neighbors. It is, more and more American Jews are coming to believe, turning its back on the Jewish moral and ethical tradition as well. Any thought that Israel shares the democratic values held by most American Jews is slowly coming to an end.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.





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