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Israel’s protests are an opportunity for American Jews to fall back in love with the Zionist dream

Jewish history is once again happening in Jerusalem. Saturday night saw tens of thousands of Israelis in front of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Residence and all over the world expressing anger at a range of sources: Netanyahu’s endless tenure, his web of corruption, and a Covid response that started strong but has since buckled under a wave of new infections and a deteriorating economy. These protests have now been gathering steam for weeks, and increasingly indicate the potential to topple Bibi.

At a time when American Jews are increasingly projecting their own fears and fantasies onto Israel, the protests provide the opportunity to see Israel as it really is. And given this propensity for projection, the protests can teach American Jews not just about Israel — but about themselves.

For starters, the protests demonstrate that in many ways, Israelis are remarkably united. Netanyahu has tried to tar the protestors with a uniform left-wing brush, but that characterization is increasingly inaccurate. Reporting indicates that the protests have brought together those on the right, left, and center, as if a MAGA and Bernie Sanders rally merged, with some Lincoln Project folks thrown in.

While the protests have featured signs about the West Bank and relations with the Palestinians, what’s bringing Israelis together is largely questions of domestic policy — ones which American Jews too often skip over in favor of debates over the nature of Zionism.

Like people all over the world, Israelis are happy to debate first principles, as long as they can keep their families safe and pay the rent.

In other words, while American Jews obsess over the occupation of the West Bank, Israelis by and large do not. For Israelis, annexation was less a moral crisis than a distraction from core policy priorities. At a moment when the American left is increasingly skeptical of the entire project of Israel, the Israeli left barely registers an electoral blip. Things look different in the Middle East.

What’s most interesting for the American Jewish context is how different that unity looks to the Jewish American political landscape. Which is why, for American Jews, this is the time to tune in to Israel, not give up on it.

Whether it is the relentless pressure Jews of all ages face on college campuses to renounce Israel, or the distaste over close ties between the Trump and Netanyahu governments, or just a general dissatisfaction with the current political climate in the Middle East, some American Jews are concluding that Israel is either irrelevant or an albatross, an increasingly reactionary ethnic nation-state at a time when nothing could be more out of style.

But these protests put the lie to those caricatures. Israel is in whirring motion and possesses the energies and will to renew and remake itself. Behind the Zionist bet that the Jews should have a political system was the insight that a true public square presents the opportunity for reinvention that is accountable to public sentiment.

Instead of playing shadow theater, Israelis can make their voice heard on the mainstage. And even storm it, on occasion.

Plugging into these energies would make American Jews better educated and poised to make a difference. We should start with reading an Israeli newspaper every morning and pursuing conversations and friendships with Israelis. It should mean educating ourselves about Israel’s political players and figuring out how to find and support those whose vision rhymes with our own.

It also must involve the recognition that Zionism was a Jewish bet that has paid off in spades, and that the spectacle of Israelis playing politics is the farthest thing from a given in the long arc of Jewish history.

Forget about a divorce between Israel and American Jews. Now is the time to fall in love, all over again.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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