In recent months, there have been various articles describing events in Israel as causing that nation to “lose its way” — the women of the Kotel, the new nationality law, a rabbi’s two-hour questioning by the police for performing non-rabbinate sanctioned marriage ceremonies, are some examples — all of which have opened a rift between the Jewish state and liberal American Jews.
Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, exemplified this attitude with his August New York Times op-ed: “These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested,” he wrote. “Today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.”
Let’s be clear: There is a rift, but it isn’t between Israel and American Jewry. Fights over religious coercion and pluralism have been going on for decades, making these latest eruptions nothing new in Israel. What has changed is the position of Zionism on the political left in America. Suddenly being a liberal and a Zionist or a progressive and a Zionist in America isn’t so comfortable.
What has emerged, then, is the real rift — between liberal Jews and the American left. And the greatest danger to Israel and to American Jewry is the almost total silence to reverse it.
Since the second intifada and the collapse of the Oslo accords, and led by social justice and progressive activists, the American left and the Democratic Party have been incrementally moving away from their prior support for Israel. The result has been a growing pressure on liberal American Jews to choose between progressive causes and Zionism, as the leaders of those causes have become increasingly outspoken in their anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Liberal Jews have been pushed aside from standing with progressive African Americans because Black Lives Matter (BLM) is anti-Zionist. BLM has described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “genocide,” and defines Israel as an “apartheid state.” As well, BLM has endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Jewish anti-Trump feminists have been told by the leaders of the Women’s March that you can’t be a Zionist too. “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it,” exclaimed March organizer and feminist activist Linda Sarsour.
If you support the LGBT movement, then be aware that you will have trouble expressing your solidarity with that cause if you also want to take pride in your Judaism. Organizers of the Chicago Dyke March equate Zionism with white supremacy and argue there is no room for it within an anti-racist movement, since it “represents an ideology that uses legacies of Jewish struggle to justify violence.”
This situation has been manifest on college campuses for even longer, with liberal speakers referring to “Zionists” with the same disgust as they do white supremacists or even Nazis. And if you would like to bring a speaker to campus, make sure your organization is on the list of approved Jewish organizations circulated by progressive leaders, a list that only includes Palestinian solidarity groups or organizations that have no connection to Israel.
Many of the younger leaders of the American left are anti-Israel by default: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional nominee in New York, admits she doesn’t know much about Israel, but is very strongly against it. And hardly a single Democrat saw fit to attend the ceremony marking the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a move which was authorized by Congress in 1995 with overwhelming bipartisan majorities and became law under President Bill Clinton.
Similarly, unlike in years past when attendance substantially crossed party lines, at this year’s Israel 70th Independence Day celebration, hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., prominent elected Democratic Party officials were not easy to find.
Many on the Jewish left try to brush aside this anti-Zionism as unimportant because their support for liberal political causes is more pressing and urgent, especially when it comes to the organized resistance to President Trump. But this isn’t the only reason why denial is easier than facing up to the reality.
As a people, we have a long-established habit of blaming ourselves for the troubles arrayed against us. This current iteration of the phenomenon is no different. Over several decades, the American left has become more and more hostile to Israel and even to Jews per se. Yet, American Jewry, who by every measure are largely and dependably politically liberal and left-wing, either attempt to dismiss the problem or, as Lauder chose to do, opt to blame Israel for this hostility rather than standing up to their political brethren to demand that the assault cease.
This rejection of Israel is the challenge to liberal American Jewry. In order to reclaim those liberal and progressive causes, liberal American Jews must force a total rejection of the anti-Zionism and anti-Zionists within it. Once the U.S. political spectrum has returned to what was a decades-long bipartisan consensus of strong support for Israel, there will be plenty of time to return to carping about the failures of Israeli religious pluralism.
Or more to the point, it will cease to be necessary to use Israel to deflect from the real rift. PJC
Abby W. Schachter, a writer and editor, and Anat Talmy, a software engineer, are both citizens of the United States and Israel.