WASHINGTON (JTA) — A slate of 169 prominent American Jews, including former leaders of major mainstream Jewish organizations, called on U.S. politicians not to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, a signal of worsening relations between the new far-right Israeli government and the U.S. Jewish community.
The statement Wednesday signals increased anxiety among Jewish leaders about how to maintain support for Israel when it is led by a government promoting policies alien to the values of an overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community. It also departs substantially from a pro-Israel community that has sought to label various forms of criticizing Israel as antisemitic.
It comes just days after 134 historians of Jewish and Israeli history, based both in Israel and the United States, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of threatening the country’s existence through his agreement to far-reaching reforms advocated by his coalition partners on the far right.
It also comes just weeks after hundreds of rabbis from Reform, Orthodox and Conservative congregations said they would not allow extremist ministers in the new Cabinet to address their congregations and would encourage their Jewish communities to boycott them as well.
The statement by the prominent American Jews addresses the newly installed Congress, and anticipates increased U.S. Jewish criticism of Israel because of the new government in Jerusalem. Among its signatories are past leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations that have traditionally shied from Israel criticism, among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish federations system, as well as past leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements.
Notably absent are current leaders, who have been reluctant to speak out about new members of the Israeli government who want to greatly expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, curb advocacy for minority rights and weaken Israel’s Supreme Court.
“As the 118th Congress begins its work, we believe it is important to state our concerns — which are widely shared by supporters of Israel here and around the world and by a significant number of Israelis — regarding some of the policies proposed by members of Israel’s new government,” the statement says.
It lists among those policies proposals by Netanyahu’s new government to weaken the independence of the judiciary, add restrictions to the Law of Return determining Jewish immigration, restrict non-Orthodox religious practice in Israel and expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
“Our criticisms emanate from a love for Israel and a steadfast support for its security and well-being,” said the statement. “Some will try to dismiss their validity by labeling them antisemitic.” Instead, the statement said, the criticisms “reflect a real concern that the new government’s direction mirrors anti-democratic trends that we see arising elsewhere — in other nations and here in the U.S., rather than reinforcing the shared democratic values that are foundational to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The statement notably appends a guide to detecting what is and isn’t antisemitic in discourse about Israel that differs markedly in its emphasis from a definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The IHRA definition, which pro-Israel organizations have sought in recent years to introduce into legislation in the United States and elsewhere, focuses on Israel criticism that its authors deem antisemitic; the guide attached to Wednesday’s statement focuses instead on criticism of Israel that does not merit being called antisemitic.
“Mistaking political disagreements about Israel for antisemitism is counterproductive,” it says. “It diverts the debate away from the substance to whether something is — or is not — antisemitic. It hinders policy debate about Israel. It distracts from addressing real instances of antisemitism and bigotry.”
The guide issued alongside the statement also says anti-Zionism and Israel boycotts may in some instances not be antisemitic, a sharp difference from ministers of the new Israeli government who say unequivocally that those things are always antisemitic.
“Boycotting goods made in the West Bank and/or Israel is not antisemitic unless it specifically singles out Israel because of its Jewish character,” said the statement. “Anti-Zionism can be antisemitic if it specifically denies the Jewish right to self-determination or it employs an antisemitic trope. But opposition to Zionism in and of itself is not necessarily antisemitic.”
Among the signatories are Tom Dine, the executive director of AIPAC in its period of massive growth in the 1980s; Alan Solow, who chaired the Conference of Presidents during the Obama presidency; Rabbi David Ellenson, the former president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Other signatories include Rabbi David A. Teutsch, the former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi David Saperstein, formerly the longtime head of Reform’s Religious Action Center; Joel Tauber, a former chairman of United Jewish Communities and the United Jewish Appeal, and Joe Kanfer, a former chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Earlier this week, a slate of 134 historians of Jewish and Israeli history in Israeli and American universities accused Netanyahu’s new government of “endangering the very existence of the State of Israel and the Israeli nation.” The statement said Netanyahu and his allies are dismantling the protections against government overreach that Israel’s founders deliberately put into place.
“Israel can be likened to a ship sailing the high seas,” the statement says. “The current government is taking out the keel, consciously dismantling the state’s institutions.”