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Have Liberal Jews Betrayed Israel?

Have liberal American Jews betrayed Israel? It’s a searing accusation, aimed like a dagger into the heart of those of us who so often feel caught between our loyalty to a Jewish state of Israel and our liberal, pluralistic, red-white-and-blue DNA.

Conservative Jewish thinkers and activists have flung this accusation at their liberal brethren for years, decades even. Ruth Wisse wrote a whole book about this a quarter-century ago — “If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” — and though she lived in Canada at the time, the argument has echoed in America ever since.

Over time, a stereotype emerged: Liberals were accused of being “court Jews,” eager to assimilate into the larger, pluralistic culture, naive about pervasive anti-Semitism and how bad the world really is, and uncomfortable with the assertion of Jewish power, Israel-style. Occasionally, this litany of ills included an attachment to economic comfort and social wellbeing. Liberals: soft. Israelis: tough.

The charge picked up ugly steam with the election of Barack Obama, whom the right has persistently (and incorrectly) portrayed as an enemy of Israel and, by immediate extension, all Jews everywhere. It didn’t work electorally, but no matter — plenty of money was spent last year to derail the nuclear agreement with Iran on the basis of unrelenting Israeli opposition, and liberals who supported the deal were, once again, accused of betrayal.

Now the charge of betrayal is coming from a different quarter: the left. And it hurts.

In a damning opinion piece that ricocheted around social media, Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev decries “the deafening silence of most American Jews in response to the waves of chauvinistic antidemocratic legislation and incitement in which Israel is increasingly drowning.”

The authoritarian campaign, Shalev asserts, “includes legislative assaults on free speech, incitement against dissenters, the withholding of government funds for political reasons, regulatory measures against — and greater government control over — television and other media, compulsory changes to school curricula, reinforced Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs and repeated attacks on the Arab minority.”

Shalev is one of the best journalists writing on contemporary Jewry, so his critique should be taken seriously. Examining his argument left me chastened, defensive, frustrated and, I’ll admit, not a little angry with those Israelis who want American Jews to save them.

He is correct in charging that many of us treat an assault on liberal values in the Israeli context differently than if it happened here. What if the U.S. government tried to ban a book from schools because it promoted racial intermarriage? What if a desperate Republican Party candidate appealed to his white constituency on Election Day by warning of “droves” of Hispanics swarming to the polls? (Actually, this last hypothetical seems possible.)

Yet when the Israeli government banned such a book, or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu employed such a cynical tactic, there was a response from predictable sources, but no lasting campaign or outcry.

It may be that, as Shalev complains, liberal Jews here are too afraid of internal dissension, bowing to the right-wing argument that groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund only give succor to the enemy in their critique of Israeli officialdom, and that what is needed from the Diaspora is solidarity, not skepticism. And yes, some of this reticence is also driven by fear of alienating the powerful donors, mostly from the right, who increasingly dictate the contours and acceptability of American Jewish discourse.

But that’s too simple. I’ve never bought the argument, famously advanced by Peter Beinart, that the American Jewish establishment forces ordinary Jews to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” I don’t believe ordinary Jews take all their cues from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Anti-Defamation League or Sheldon Adelson, for that matter.

Rightly or wrongly, many of us here view Israel’s security concerns, both internally and in the context of its very rough neighborhood, as mitigating factors in assessing civil liberties. That doesn’t excuse Netanyahu’s behavior — nothing does — but it explains the reluctance to criticize the Israeli public’s support for measures that, in the American milieu, would be offensive.

We don’t worry about getting blown up riding the bus to work or at a café one evening. We don’t send our children into harm’s way. We don’t have bomb shelters in the basement.

There’s no doubt that those American Jews who do visit Israel are too often exposed to a sanitized landscape devoid of Palestinians and other oppressed minorities, and that these well-orchestrated visits serve to perpetuate a romanticized notion of Israel as a Jewish utopia and the world’s greatest victim. But really, how well do most Israelis understand American Jews?

I don’t feel comfortable dictating Israeli policy any more than I want an Israeli dictating American policy. It’s not my civic duty to select and steer Israeli leadership, and I resent the implication from some Israelis that my political choices here should be derived solely from their reality. I similarly resent when Israeli leaders say they are acting on behalf of all Jews.

But since I care deeply about Israel and believe that every modern Jew should develop and nurture his or her own relationship with Israel, I struggle to find the right balance of criticism and support. That struggle would be helped immeasurably if there were a vibrant, recognizable liberal movement within Israel to learn from and connect to, and if I could be convinced that my complaints from New York might have real consequences in Jerusalem. Instead, I see a demoralized Israeli left that needs to get its own act together before it demands more from us.

We can and should stand up for the liberal values that bind our nations, to use diplomatic-speak, but enduring change will only come from within. Shalev ends his piece with a dark warning: “Notwithstanding the thousand differences, it would not be the first time American Jews stayed silent and hoped for the best as clouds gathered and a storm threatened their brothers and sisters — nor would it be the first time they came to regret it forever more.”

As we often say to his prime minister: This is not 1938. We cannot and should not be expected to save Israeli Jews from themselves. In the end, all we can ask is to be highly knowledgeable and engaged witnesses to each other’s stories.

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