The One Thing American Jews Can Do To Help Israel
American Jews are worried about Israel and don’t know how to help.
This is the conclusion I’ve drawn as an Israeli activist who’s been presenting for more than a decade at synagogues and fire-side chats in the American Jewish community. I usually talk about the challenges Israel’s democracy is facing: the growing polarization, the use of fear mongering and Anti-Arab statements by politicians, and how it all feeds into the growing levels of distrust Jews feel towards the Arabs. I talk about how most Israelis turn a blind eye to the reality in the occupied territories, fueled by the assumption that the status quo with the Palestinians is the best thing we can currently achieve.
Without exception, after my 30-minute talk, I get asked the same question: “What can we do?”
I have met so many people here in the U.S. who care deeply about Israel, who are also extremely worried about its future. These people watch the changes happening in Israel with increasing trepidation from this side of the ocean. The refrain I hear from so many of them is a constant: “We don’t know what to do.” So they ask me, the Israeli activist and social change professional, to help.
For a long time, I didn’t have a good answer. Support the NGOs and activities on the ground, I would suggest. Donate money, or use your networks and connections to help organizations reach new donors, I would plead. At the end of the day, this support is the oxygen for the advocacy, community organizing and legal work that try to counteract these worrying trends. With the Trump administration stopping USAID’s funding for many human rights organizations and people to people initiatives, it’s become more difficult than ever. It’s always hard to sustain an NGO financially. In this reality, it’s a constant struggle.
But I have to admit that I’ve always felt that my answers were kind of lame. Yes, financial support from the American Jewish community is crucial, especially when so many other crises around the world demand the attention of private and institutional donors. But giving money cannot be the only way to engage.
Last week, I finally found a good answer, from an unusual source. I was at a luncheon conversation at CJP, Boston with Ambassador Dennis Ross, who worked for both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“Ambassador Dennis Ross,” I asked. “Can the Jewish community in America influence politics and policies in Israel?”
“The short answer is no,” he replied. If we don’t live there, if we don’t serve in the IDF, if we don’t vote there, then no. We can’t tell Israel what to do. But there is something we can do,” he added, just before I lost all hope. “We can ask the questions.”
It was a brilliant answer. A good question, a stymying question, a question for which there is no answer, is itself a powerful form of activism. And it’s one American Jews are uniquely poised to provide.
So I implore you, whenever you visit Israel, whether it is on a federation mission, a study tour, or a family visit in the summer, please ask us the questions. When you meet with Israeli officials, decision makers, business people, friends and families — ask us. Ask us how we plan to continue to be a Jewish and Democratic state if we keep burying the two state solution under a pile of “there’s no partner” rubble.
Ask us how we think we can maintain a demographic Jewish majority in Israel if we don’t reach an agreed separation from the Palestinians. And when you get a baffled response, ask us then how we plan to prevent the one state scenario from happening. Ask us how we plan to be able to conduct any future peace negotiations if Netanyahu implements his election promise to annex the settlements in the West bank. Ask us how we plan to continue living in a country where 20% of its citizens feel so alienated that many of them didn’t want to vote in the elections last month. Ask us what we are doing to reduce the flames of hatred and polarization that have been spreading in our schools, shopping malls, soccer fields and social media.
Just ask us. No need to tell us what to do. We, as you know, believe we know best. And we do. But we have to get the discussion going. Don’t accept our usual “Yihiye Beseder” (It will all be ok) answer. We love this answer, but it’s not good for us. We must turn our attention back to all these questions.
We have to stop pretending we’re the kid from the Haggadah who doesn’t know how to ask.
Help us interrupt our own psychological stalemate, which has led us to avoid these important questions. Yes, I know that it is hard to engage in the conversation about Israel. I know it may feel awkward to dive into discussions that sometimes should be “kept in the family”. But by asking the questions, you are indicating your concern. You are not just stating your opinion. You are opting out of the option of being silent, of accepting the situation as it is.
And most importantly, you are showing your children and many other Jewish millennials, that it is OK to ask questions, that asking questions is an act of caring, not an act of offense. You don’t have to be either “in support” or “against,” a “self-hating Jew” or a “committed Zionist.” There is enough room in the middle to ask questions.
Because if we don’t, no one will stand up and demand our leaders come up with new, and much better, answers.
So please, ask us the questions.
Ronit Heyd is a Wexner Israel Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and was previously the Director of Shatil, the action arm of the New Israel Fund.