We have closely tracked the divorce proceedings going on between American Jews and Israel; and the decision by the Netanyahu government under pressure from its religious wing not to give access to non-orthodox Jews to pray at the Western Wall is exhibit A. On this issue of Who counts as a Jew, we’re suddenly seeing an open break between largely-liberal American Jewish groups and the Taliban-style government that Netanyahu leads.
American Jewish groups are furious about the decision; the top story on NPR this last hour was that leading Jewish philanthropist Ike Fisher has demanded back $1 million he spent on Israel Bonds. As Isabel Kershner reports at the Times:
A group of Jewish leaders canceled a dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. The president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, flew to Jerusalem for an emergency meeting with the prime minister.
The issue is especially piquant for the growing movement of Jews supporting Palestinian rights. Where have all these liberal Jewish institutions been when Palestinians were getting pushed off their land, shot at, and imprisoned?
As Rabbi Brant Rosen asked on his blog yesterday, Why are the religious rights of conservative and Reform Jewish men and women so much more important than Palestinian human rights? Rosen detailed suffering in Gaza, then questioned:
[W]here is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish establishment over these cruel human rights abuses? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “liberal” among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance selectively.
Rosen makes an important point about what Jewish nationalism has done to Jewish political culture: turned all concerns inward.
Those values are expressed directly by Daniel Gordis, a conservative Jew and rightwing Zionist, writing “an open letter to American Jews,” in the Times of Israel. Gordis wants American Jews to get angry about the religious access question– and even boycott El Al airlines– but to keep their mouths shut about the “occupation.”
“Your job, more than anything else, is to help us stay safe and alive.”
Gordis says Israelis don’t care what Americans think about the occupation.
You can call it the “conflict.” You can call it the “occupation.” Whatever…. Your righteous indignation will get you nowhere. Israelis don’t care that you’re insulted.
Because American Jews have nothing at stake:
You don’t have skin in the game. I know you don’t like to hear it, but (with a few exceptions) you and your kids don’t assume the risks that we do. And that matters. Your kids don’t go charging into tunnels risking their lives to protect kibbutzim. You don’t lie awake at night waiting for your soldier-kid to get home from whatever s/he is doing, knowing that the only thing you know is that you can’t protect them – it’s a horrible feeling for a parent, and you’ve never felt it and never will.
This is of course the traditional bargain. Israeli Jews have greater “weight” than American Jews. As Bill Kristol said, who am I to cavalierly criticize Israeli policies on the Upper West Side when there’s no physical risk to me? Stand by your man.
As Gordis reminds us, we have to keep lobbying our government:
American Jews ought to recognize that the State of Israel is by far the most extraordinary Jewish accomplishment of the past 2,000 years, and that it has changed the existential condition of being Jewish everywhere. It also faces existential threats. Your job, more than anything else, is to help us stay safe and alive…. [W]hat you owe the Jewish people is to help us keep the bad guys at bay. Help us make sure that members of Congress understand what Israel is, the values that it shares with American democracy, the fact that the Arabs and then the Palestinians turned down peace offers time and again.
But when it comes to the Western Wall decision, Gordis wants American Jews to use the boycott tool, even to the point of refusing to normalize the Netanyahu government and threatening the existence of Israel’s air line:
I called for American Jews to begin to use the power of their purse. I’m told that American Jewish money flowing to Israel amounts to more than 5% of Israel’s GDP. That’s a huge amount of leverage…. Before the government arrived at an interim solution to the crisis, I proposed that American Jews consider withholding money they give to Israeli hospitals…
If [Netanyahu and his consuls] are part of a coalition that is willing to say that you don’t matter, why would you possibly so much as sit in the same room with them? It’s time for you to be serious. Which is why I thought that the Chicago Federation’s decision to do just that was fabulous….
I also pointed out that just by refusing to fly El Al, American Jews could bring the airline to its knees… El Al is a critical security issue for Israel. No Prime Minister can let it fail, and El Al survives only on the margins. Simply by buying tickets with United or Delta, American Jews can create a huge problem for any Prime Minister.
This is today the peculiar situation of American Jews and Israel. The lobby is essential to Israel’s survival. We are never to deploy that power in criticism of Israeli foreign policy. Even when the country practices Jim Crow across the West Bank and slaughters thousands in Gaza, we should fight the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel hammer and tongs. But if American Jews’ freedom to worship at the western wall is compromised, then we should use our boycott power mercilessly.
As Rosen writes, these narrow nationalist values are not liberal. They are why young Jews are so weary of the Jewish establishment. They want a less parochial understanding of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.