Diaspora alarm over Israel: Your guide to what the critics are saying


(JTA) — I started reporting on North American Jews and Israel in the last century, and for years covered the debate over whether Jews in the Diaspora had a right to criticize the Israeli government in public. The debate sort of petered out in the early-1990s, when Israel itself began talking about a Palestinian state, and when right-wing groups then decided criticizing Israel was a mitzvah.

Nevertheless, while left-wing groups like J Street and T’ruah have long been comfortable criticizing the Israeli government or defending Palestinian rights, many in the centrist “mainstream” — pulpit clergy, leaders of federations and Hillels, average Jews nervous about spoiling a family get-together — have preferred to keep their concerns to themselves. Partly this is tactical: Few rabbis want to alienate any of their members over so divisive a topic, and in the face of an aggressive left, organizational leaders did not want to give fuel to Israel’s ideological enemies. (The glaring exception has been about Israeli policy toward non-Orthodox Judaism, which is seen as very much the Disapora’s business.)

In recent weeks, there has been an emerging literature of what I have come to think of as “reluctant dissent.” What these essays and sermons have in common, despite the different political persuasions of the authors, is a deep concern over Israel’s “democratic character.” They cite judicial reforms that would weaken checks and balances at the top, expansion of Jewish settlements that would make it impossible to separate from the Palestinians, and the Orthodox parties that want to strengthen their hold on religious affairs. As Abe Foxman, who as former director of the Anti-Defamation League rarely criticized Israel, told an interviewer, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

I read through the various ways Jewish leaders and writers here and in Israel are not just justifying Diaspora Jews who are protesting what is happening in Israel, but providing public permission for others to do the same. Here is what a few of them are saying (with a word from a defender of the government):

‘I didn’t sleep much last night’
Yehuda Kurtzer: Facebook, Feb. 8 

Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the New York-based branch of the Israeli think tank that promotes a diverse, engaged relationship with Israel. In a recent blog post, he neatly describes the dilemma of Diaspora Zionists who aren’t sure what to do with their deep concerns about the direction of the Israel government, especially the concentration of power in a far-right legislative branch.

Centrist American Jews who care about Israel are caught between “those to our right who would see any expression of even uncertainty about Israel’s democratic character as disloyalty, [and] those on the other side who think that a conversation about Israeli democracy is already past its prime,” he writes. He is also concerned about the “widespread disengagement that we can expect among American Jews, what I fear will become the absent majority — those who decide that however the current crisis is resolved, all of this is just ‘not for them.’” 

Kurtzer likens Israel to a palace, and Diaspora Jews as “passersby” who live beyond its walls. Nonetheless, he feels responsible for what happens there. “The palace is burning and the best we can do is to tell you,” he writes. “It is also how we will show you we love you, and how much we cherish the palace.”

An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America
Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis: Times of Israel, Feb. 7 

Three high-profile writers who moved to Israel from North America and who often defend Israel against its critics in the United States — Gordis, for one, has written a book arguing that American Jewish liberalism is incompatible with Israel’s “ethnic democracy” — now urge Diaspora Jews to speak out against the current Israeli government. They don’t mention the territories or religious pluralism. Instead, their trigger is the proposed effort to reform the Supreme Court, which they say will “eviscerate the independence of our judiciary and remake the country’s democratic identity.” Such a move will “threaten Israeli-American relations, and it will do grave damage to our relations with you, our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora,” concluding, “We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.” 

All Israel Is Responsible for Each Other
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: Sermon, Jan. 27

Buchdahl, the senior rabbi of New York City’s Reform Central Synagogue, isn’t looking to Israeli writers for permission to weigh in on Israel’s political scene. In a sermon that takes its name from a rabbinic statement of Jewish interdependence, she asserts without question that Jews everywhere have a stake in the future of Israel and have a right to speak up for “civil society and democracy and religious pluralism and human rights” there. She focuses on the religious parties who are convinced that “Reform Jews are ruining Israel,” as you might expect, but ends the sermon with a call to recognize the rights of all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, “and also those living under Israel’s military control.” Of those Palestinians, she says, “We can’t feel comfortable sitting in the light of sovereignty next to a community living in darkness and expect to have peace.”

And like Kurtzer, she worries that concerned American Jews will simply turn away from Israel in despair or embarrassment, and urges congregants to support the Israeli and American organizations that share their pluralistic vision for Israel.

On That Distant Day
Hillel Halkin: Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2023  

In his 1977 book “Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic,” the translator and author Hillel Halkin made a distinction similar to Kurtzer’s image of Israel as a palace and the Diaspora as passersby: Jews who don’t  emigrate to Israel are dooming themselves to irrelevance, while immigrants like him are living on the stage where the Jewish future would play out. His mournful essay doesn’t address the Diaspora, per se, although it creates a permission structure for Zionists abroad to criticize the government. Halkin sees the new government as a coalition of two types of religious zealots: the haredi Orthodox who want to consolidate their control of religious life (and funding) in Israel, and a “knit-skullcap electorate [that] is hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs.” (A knit skullcap is a symbol for what an American might call the “Modern Orthodox.”) Together, these growing and powerful constituents represent “the end of an Israeli consensus about what is and is not permissible in a democracy — and once the rules are no longer agreed on, political chaos is not far away. Israel has never been in such a place before.”

Halkin does talk about Israeli expansion in the West Bank, saying he long favored Jewish settlement in the territories, while believing that the “only feasible solution” would be a two-state solution with Arabs living in the Jewish state and Jews living in the Arab one. Instead, Israel has reached a point where there is “too much recrimination, too much distrust, too much hatred, too much blind conviction, too much disdain for the notion of a shared humanity, for such a solution to be possible… We’re over the cliff and falling, and no one knows how far down the ground is.”

Method to Our Madness: A Response to Hillel Halkin
Ze’ev Maghen: Jewish Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2023

Ze’ev Maghen, chair of the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, is hardly a dissenter; instead, his response to Halkin helpfully represents the views of those who voted for the current government. Maghen says the new coalition represents a more honest expression of Zionism than those who support a “liberal, democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, individualist, environmentally conscious, economically prosperous, globally connected, etc., etc., society.” The new government he writes, will defend Israel’s “Jewish nationalist raison d’être, and keep at bay those universalist, Western-based notions that are geared by definition to undermine nationalism in all its forms.” As for the Palestinian issue, he writes, “I’d rather have a fierce, hawkish Zionist in the cockpit than a progressive, Westernized wimp for whom this land, and the people who have returned to it after two millennia of incomparable suffering, don’t mean all that much.”

The Tears of Zion
Rabbi Sharon Brous: Sermon, Feb. 4, 2023

Brous, rabbi of the liberal Ikar community in Los Angeles, doesn’t just defend the right of Diaspora Jews to speak out in defense of Israeli democracy and Palestinian rights, but castigates Jewish leaders and communities who have been reluctant to criticize Israel in the past. “No, this government is not an electoral accident, and it is not an anomaly,” she says. “This moment of extremism has been a long time in the making and our silence has made us complicit.”

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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