We’re Staunch Zionists. And We Are Worried About Israel’s Democracy.
Both of us have spent decades in public service in several U.S. administrations working to enhance the ties between the United States and Israel. Separately, in our private careers we have sought to promote the well-being of the Jewish people. We believe a strong, democratic Israel in the troubled Middle East is in the national security interests of the U.S.
While understanding that the interests of Diaspora communities might not always converge with those of Israel, we have never believed that they would be fundamentally at odds. And, even when their interests might seem to diverge — as they often do when Israel acts militarily for security reasons and its actions produce a backlash internationally — we are strongly of the view that Israel’s concerns must take precedence.
We remain convinced that on its security, Israel’s government must be the judge of what is required. Whether in Gaza, where Hamas fomented efforts to breach the security fence, or in Syria, where Iran is seeking to create a military infrastructure for attacks against the Jewish state, Israel faces real threats and its government must have the flexibility to deal with them.
While understanding of Israel’s security needs, particularly in a region where the consequences of being weak are catastrophic, we do have concerns about some Israeli policies on non-security issues. Israeli settlement policy, especially its construction outside of the settlement blocs in the West Bank, is one such policy. With numbers that now approach 100,000 to the east of the security barrier, it is becoming harder to preserve separation from the Palestinians and a possible two-state outcome as options.
If separation is not possible, Israel will increasingly run the risk of becoming a binational, Arab-Jewish state. That would compromise the Zionist mission and its Jewish-democratic ethos, and tear at the fabric that has bound America and Israel together.
Something else threatens that fabric: For 70 years, Israel has not been a partisan issue. Now, it threatens to become one. A Pew survey found that while nearly 80% of Republicans favor Israel over the Palestinians, the percentage of comparable Democratic support is an astonishingly low 27%. A Gallup poll this year shows the same yawning gap.
Why? On the one hand, Democrats tend to be more concerned with the civil and human rights of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Democratic Party has a larger component of non-white voters — Hispanics, African Americans, Asians — and these groups have less of a historic connection to Israel. If Israel cannot find ways of reaching out to these groups, it faces hard times ahead.
Yes, Democrats generally, and a majority of American Jewry, also question the logic of Israel’s settlement policy. But that questioning, especially among many American Jews, turns into alienation and even estrangement when they perceive Israel to be straying from its own commitment to liberal values. And, here, the Israeli embrace of the Trump administration contributes to this perception. Indeed, while the Administration is strongly committed to Israel’s security, its policies on immigration and refugees fly in the face of traditional Jewish values of accepting the “stranger.”
Making matters worse for many American Jews is the current Israeli government’s adoption of illiberal policies on non-security issues. Consider, for example, the ongoing efforts to dilute the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court by adopting legislation making it easier to override its decisions — or in one pending bill to go so far as to limit Palestinian access to the courts in land disputes.
Similarly, the increasing control of life cycle events by the Orthodox Rabbinate is becoming so strong that a conservative rabbi was arrested by the police for performing a marriage in Haifa. (Ironically, his arrest and release took place shortly before he participated in an event promoting religious pluralism hosted by Israel’s President, Ruvi Rivlin. The Jewish People Planning Institute, whose board we co-chair, originated and planned this annual event.)
And then there is the recently adopted Nation-State law which declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — something we fervently believe in — but unlike Israel’s Declaration of Independence, drops any reference to democracy and equality. It also makes Arabic a language only of special, not equal, status.
None of this means that Israel is no longer a democracy, or is a state that is no longer governed by the rule of law. It is. Indeed, public outcry over a new law that would have prohibited single men and gay male couples from being surrogate parents led to its prompt reversal — and the backlash against the Nation-State law may yet have political consequences.
Still, if the current trends continue, they will weaken Israel’s democratic tradition, increase the partisan divide, foster alienation among Diaspora Jewry and erode their identification with Israel. As the state of the Jewish people, Israel also has an obligation and responsibility to the Diaspora. It cannot be a one-way street.
Our commitment to Israel is unshakeable. And that is why we believe it is essential for Jewish voices from the Diaspora to be heard in Israel now. The Israeli government and public need to become more aware of the long-term consequences of steps that may, over time, weaken Israel’s democracy.
Israel can ill afford to lose a majority of Democrats or a substantial percentage of American Jewry; throughout its history, the American Jewish community has been and remains a pillar of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It needs to remain so, and that is why we are speaking out now.
Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.