Conservative Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, a frequent critic of the New Israel Fund and progressives in general, recently wrote about the manufactured controversy regarding NIF’s participation in the Celebrate Israel parade on Sunday. Acknowledging that we do not in fact support global BDS, the lie that’s been told to justify our exclusion, he wrote that we should participate in the parade, because we are irritating but legitimate.
I love that. I can picture hundreds of liberal Zionists marching down Park Avenue in T-shirts reading Irritating But Legitimate. Kudos to Yemini for realizing that, despite our ideological disagreements with him on serious matters, we and other progressive organizations represent a respected and important stream of the community both here in the United States and in Israel itself.
Not everyone agrees. The denial of membership by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations to J Street barred the way to the fastest-growing Jewish organization in recent history. Since J Street appeals particularly to the young people that Jewish establishment organizations like the ones in the Conference bemoan losing, J Street’s rejection is both self-defeating and sadly ironic.
But not all that surprising. We progressive supporters of Israel are not naïve. We understand that some in our community believe that any criticism of Israeli policy amounts to “airing dirty laundry” or aiding and abetting Israel’s enemies. We respectfully disagree. We believe that loving rebuke, tochechah in the Jewish tradition, is a necessary part of being in a healthy relationship, whether with a person or a country.
So it is that the millions of Israelis and the majority of American Jews who want a peaceful, democratic, just Israel are too frequently overridden and told there is no place for us, by a well-organized, well-funded faction that represents a relatively small part of our community.
That may be because the people of that faction, the ones who frantically deny that one can love Israel and oppose the current government’s policies, are feeling increasingly defensive. There’s a U.S. Secretary of State who signaled that Israel’s future is at risk from the continuing occupation. There are European leaders figuring out how to label or prohibit the sale of settlement products. There are an increasing number of so-called “price-tag” attacks by vigilante settlers exemplifying an ugly racism for all the world to see. And there are millions of ordinary Israelis who realize that social justice as well as greater religious freedom and ordinary democratic rights are being compromised by ultra-nationalists’ intransigence.
The next test of that intransigence in Israel will come soon, as the Knesset returns to session and considers the “Jewish statehood” bill, which I fear will come to be known as the “Jewish-trumps-democratic” legislation. This bill, advanced by the right wing in different iterations, attempts to solve a problem that does not exist, that of Israel’s Jewish identity.
For 67 years, the world has known Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Love it or hate it, support it or oppose it, no one denies that Israel is what it is, the place where the Jewish people achieve self-determination. If this new Basic Law is enacted, it risks resolving the creative tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature in favor of the former. The intent of the bill’s sponsors is clear: define the state not as the impartial arbiter of citizens’ rights, but as the property of its majority population. If they succeed, discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and the use of Jewish religious law as a means to overturn democratic process will have legal validity.
Fortunately, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the center-left parties oppose the bill. It may not go anywhere. But as a signal from the ultranationalist right that the attempts to de-democratize Israel will continue, it is a somber warning sign.
Our conclusion is that we may well be at a crossroads. Many progressive and centrist leaders are thinking anew about the way forward, in Israel and in the Jewish community worldwide. Some look for alternative institutions to outdated power structures, others will continue to rally grassroots support for a liberal, democratic Israel seeking an end to the conflict.
We at NIF are going to expand on what we’ve done for the last 35 years. We are going to continue working to build a better Israel and oppose the continued assault on democratic values. Having successfully built and protected progressive civil society in Israel, we recognize that additional strategies are called for. We will work with our allies to create new initiatives to super-charge and rebuild the pro-democracy camp. We’ll provide democratic activists and organizations with new tools that will enable them to push back against both the ultra-nationalist lobby and the ultra-Orthodox hierarchy. And we will support those Israelis who, every day, work to realize the dream of Israel’s founders.
We know from our own research that a majority of the determinedly liberal American Jewish community supports our work and our viewpoint. We also know that many more Israelis than you’d think support progressive values. In the coming months, we will look towards a commitment to the kind of long-term social change that is difficult, slow and yes, sometimes irritating. We are in it for Israel, and we are in it for the long haul. If it takes us another 35 years.
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.