Fear of democracy in the Jewish community

Israel/Palestine
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Last week a number of Jewish groups staged a historic debate inside a New York synagogue of the question, Can a Jewish state be democratic? Alex Kane reported on the discussion last week, but I wanted to convey my impressions. 

The actual business of the debate was bracing: virtually everyone in the room acknowledged that Israel’s political values are completely inconsistent with U.S. democratic values. But the running theme of the discussion was fear:  even in this leftwing Jewish space there was an awareness of the fear in the broader Jewish community about what is going to happen to Israel. And the panelists all in their way called on us to be sensitive to those fears if not to respect them.  Moderator Lizzy Ratner began the evening with a parable aimed at proving that Jews can discuss these things as Jews and the sky won’t fall: she quoted the Talmud, a passage involving a dispute between the houses of Hillel and Shamai, in which a heavenly voice was heard to say that both sides are the word of God. 

Here’s a short list of other fears people addressed:

To begin with, the fear of having the discussion, which had caused the Upper West Side synagogue Ansche Chesed to back out and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the downtown LGBT-focused synagogue Beit Simchat Torah to step in. Then there was the fear of historical Jewish persecution, which every speaker referred to. This included fear of another wave of anti-Semitism–the likelihood of  which, Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark said boldly, Israel’s conduct was enhancing globally rather than lessening. Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace called on us to attend to the Israeli Jewish fears about losing power, and JJ Goldberg of the Forward echoed this, saying that top generals and Mossad chiefs are terrified by what is happening to Israeli society. Of course Goldberg also mentioned the fear of Palestinians: he said Israelis are scarred by the second intifada and angry about it. And he spoke of the fear felt by American Jews of losing the dream and responsibility involved in supporting the Jewish state: he said they are afraid of the growing delegitimization of Israel on the left. That is surely why Ansche Chesed refused to have the conversation.  

Sure sounds like a lot of handwringing! And Ratner ended the evening by declaring firmly that the conversation must now continue outside the Jewish community, with non-Jews participating. I can’t wait. But for the time being the handwringing seems a necessary component of the American Jewish awakening to apartheid; so let me quote from three statements by panelists that capture the mood of the night.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, who has lived in Israel, spoke forcefully about Israeli Jewish fears and called on others to use a language of hope not fear so as to urge that society forward toward equal rights– which she said emphatically is the only guarantee of safety.

She described the positive feeling she had on first arriving in Israel of being among people who look more or less like herself, a positive feeling she has even now when she watches Tel Aviv wind down on Friday as the Sabbath approaches.

“That feeling of living in a society where culture is dominant is for many of us if not most of us [Jews] in the United States really pretty seductive because it’s not something that we experience here. At the same time I cant justify to myself the oppression of another people for the sake of that feeling. There’s no getting around the fact that Israel is based on a system of ethnic supremacy, and that what kind of life you can lead there is largely determined by whether you are Jewish or not.”

But Vilkomerson stressed her own Americanness, and her pride in this country’s social changes and the Jewish role in those movements.  

“I’m very proud that as a community we’ve often stood in solidarity with those who are oppressed and joined struggles for freedom and equality. And so I see these positions [her own, on equality in Israel] as a continuation of that tradition. But I do think that it’s important to acknowledge the feelings of loss and fear that contemplating a more equal and just society in Israel bring out. As the ones in power we are the ones with the most to lose. The systematic history of persecution of Jews in many eras was real, so these emotions especially of fear have real weight.”

Acknowledging those fears doesn’t mean ennobling them. Yes, there is fear and sadness and discomfort among Israeli Jews about what a thorough transformation of Israeli society would involve. But “those emotions can’t trump” Palestinian rights; and– now addressing the monstrous selfishness of the situation– Vilkomerson said American Jews must ask themselves why Palestinians must be patient “in order to better accommodate our fears.”

“We should remember that the U.S. was founded as a democracy but for a select group, propertied white men.” It then took 100s of years of struggle, carried on by many popular movements, and accompanying Supreme Court decisions, to give all people access to the privileges initially bestowed on one group.

“Today we don’t think of that as a tale of destruction. We think of it as one of the greatest accomplishments we’ve ever made.”

That process is not complete in the U.S. But Vilkomerson concluded by turning the Israeli fears on their head:

“I would ask the question. Why when people push for the same in Israel is that considered a threat?”

JJ Goldberg of the Forward also addressed the fears inside Israel. While he placed himself in the camp of the critics on the panel and in the audience, he called on anti-Zionists to help change the American Jewish community by working inside it, so as to broaden its diversity. It wasn’t entirely clear whether Goldberg, who said he pitches Israel bonds, was calling on anti-Zionists to say good things about the Jewish state. Certainly he wants Israel’s critics to support Israeli liberals, so that that society can “get back to the job of becoming the democracy it should be.”

You cant underestimate the fears of Israelis Jews about violence and American Jews about this whole delegitimization stuff, which I think is a lot of nonsense. But  people are scared.

And in that spirit, he called on Jews “to say, I am part of your community– and to keep your facts straight.”

Vilkomerson and Goldberg are clearly reflecting emotions inside the Jewish community. Even CBST the leftwing synagogue that was hosting the discussion has started a committee to begin exploring how to have this conversation– rather than simply embarking on the conversation. The fear reflects the no-man’s-land the Jewish community finds itself in in terms of old paradigms, including the two-state solution. The official Jewish community used to have one solemn task, to support Israel. Now those leaders know in the back of their minds that things have gone wrong, and they are afraid to acknowledge as much, because if they do, the American support crumbles, and they will thereby betray their kinsmen in Jerusalem.

I can relate to these fears because a lot of my initial activism on this issue involved handwringing: workshops about the Jewish family and trauma and our inhibitions about speaking our minds and hurting our parents, all because we were looking into the Nakba and uttering phrases like, equal rights. Given that so many activists had to go through this process before they could be clear and effective, I imagine the official Jewish community is now embarking on its own handwringing interlude– in which it discovers the Nakba and doesn’t know what to do about it.

The best answer to these fears was a statement by Marilyn Neimark. Neimark was responding to her friend Kathleen Peratis, a civil rights attorney and member of the Peace Now board, who said frankly that she holds on to a glimmer of hope that Israel will become a democracy. After all, it took America a long time to become a democracy; it’s still not there.

Neimark began by saying that the argument over whether Israel is a democracy is a “derelict pilpul”– pilpul means Jewish moral debate. And she concluded by saying that the Jewish attachment to Israel was skewing our moral vision.

Practically speaking there’s no such thing as distinct Green Line Israel. It’s a fiction or maybe a fable that we tell ourselves to sustain some shred of hope. The fact is some residents of the lands Israel controls can vote… and  many millions more don’t have votes. That seems to me to make a slam-dunk case that Israel is not by any common definition a democracy. Yet we seem to keep wanting to debate the old question of whether a Jewish state can be a democracy and debating it as if it’s an abstract question. After 65 years of evidence, and a significant majority of those years involving Israel’s occupation…. it seems like a kind of derelict pilpul not to talk about the concrete reality….

Maybe it’s better to ask, has Israel ever been a democracy? And if we add the reasonable caveat that no country lives up to the best ideals of democracy, then maybe it’s better to ask, over these 65 years has Israel been tracing an arc that bends toward justice, speaking of Martin Luther King, of course. If the answer is No, could it be because no matter the potential merits and good will of the founding plan, the effort to establish and sustain the Jewish character of the intended Jewish democracy doomed the democratic character from the start, and it’s been spiraling downward ever since? For whatever the starting point was, I think we mostly agree that Israel has become less democratic in recent years, and every time the separation between religion and state dwindles, free speech  is curtailed, or  minority rights are trampled, it is … in the name of preserving the state’s Jewish character– that is, Jewish hegemony.

Peter Beinart, the liberal, religiously-observant American Jew who’s taken a lot of heat for his useful and eloquent book, The Crisis of Zionism, exemplifies well the ways that Jewishness trumps democracy in even the most liberal [circles]. Here’s what he told the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg a few years ago.

“I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

This is the kind of thinking that has long justified not only the de facto but the de jure discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

I don’t know how anyone can counter that argument. In fact, listening to my taperecording and reading Neimark’s words over and over to transcribe them, I understand the fear inside the organized Jewish community. For if you admit this discussion inside Jewish spaces, then people are going to hear Marilyn Neimark; and allowing her to speak means the debate is over. American Jews are going to nod their heads at her devastating judgments and begin to abandon the ideal of a Jewish national project. I don’t see any other outcome.

Then maybe we can move on to the hard business of building a different future.

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