Change is coming for the American Jewish community. This change will not be the result of the current pandemic, but the pandemic will offer it cover — a microscopic Trojan Horse. The resulting damage to the American Jewish-Israel relationship may be irreparable.
The government currently forming in Israel has only one purpose beyond managing COVID-19: to start annexing parts of the West Bank.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu say in their coalition agreement that the reason they came together to form an “emergency unity government” is the historic crisis due to the spread of the coronavirus. Yet the only thing they have actually agreed to do together is unilateral annexation, and unilateral annexation is the end of the road for Israeli democracy.
We did not get here overnight. Last April, Prime Minister Netanyahu made annexation of parts of the West Bank a major part of his reelection bid. In January, in the midst of another election, President Trump released a document — a so-called “peace plan”— which offered the Israeli government a green light to annex territory currently under occupation. This came on the heels of a decade of Israeli laws and policies expanding and normalizing settlements and bringing them under the Israeli legal system. This “creeping annexation” has been a tactic of successive Israeli governments and the far-right settlement movement for years.
But it is only now, under the cover of COVID-19, that Netanyahu and his settler allies could potentially seal the fate of Israeli democracy by joining up with Benny Gantz, demanding – and receiving – his fealty to their goal. There is even a start date for the new prospective government to approve President Trump’s annexation plan: July 1.
We don’t yet know the specifics. But whether it’s all of Area C, the Jordan Valley, or the settlement “blocs” matters far less than the ultimate result. Permanent control over millions of Palestinians who have no say – and no vote – in their own future will mean one thing: Israel will no longer be a democracy.
For American Jews, this will be an earthquake. So much of our communal identity is tied up in our relationship to Israel. But what happens when Israel is no longer the place we thought it was?
Many American Jews grew up celebrating a country that enshrines in its Declaration of Independence “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of race, religion, or sex.” How will they feel about a country that rules permanently over millions of people to whom it does not offer equal rights?
Annexation will change how often American Jews visit Israel, what they do when they are there, and even the Israeli products they are willing to buy. It will change how they relate to their own communal institutions that refuse to recognize, acknowledge, or protest what is happening in Israel.
The shame and anger won’t be ours alone. Annexation will change Israel’s standing in the world. There may even be international sanctions. What we hear from non-Jewish Americans about Israel will challenge us in new ways.
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At that point, we — the American Jewish community — will need to make a choice: What will we do? Once Israel has scrapped its Declaration of Independence, hollowed out its democracy, and tossed out the two-state solution, what will we say?
One thing’s for sure: there’s no way that most American Jews will support a permanent, unequal regime that denies basic rights to millions. If Israel is no longer a democracy, if annexation renders a two-state solution impossible, American Jewish life will need to re-orient and put its energy into building a different future in Israel, one that truly enshrines complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.
Daniel Sokatch has served as the CEO of the New Israel Fund since 2009. He has contributed articles to leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, the Forward and Haaretz. Daniel holds an MA from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, a JD from Boston College Law School, and a BA from Brandeis University. He is married, is father to two daughters, and resides in San Francisco.
American Jews will abandon Israel if it annexes territory under cover of COVID