A liberal Zionist leader is touring these days with a talk on the “Shared Struggle” faced by progressives in Israel and America. Our two societies face the same problem, Naomi Chazan says. “As the Jewish American community mobilizes against policies that strike at the heart of American democratic values, what can we learn from the ongoing struggle to uphold Israel’s democracy?”
The claim that the U.S. and Israel are in the same boat, liberal democracies that just need to be saved from an authoritarian rightwing leader, was also the theme at the J Street conference in April. Speaker after speaker rose to say, What Israel is facing, we in the U.S. are facing. I didn’t get round to writing about this at the time. But the claim is central to liberal Zionism. Both countries are in crisis now, and both can be redeemed.
Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers was the most vociferous in her J Street speech.
[W]e must fight the anti democratic, racist, nativistic, incompetent, oligarchical authoritarianism and cruel instincts and actions of a president and his cronies and associates who simply want an intolerant divisive society and a return to the gilded age… [I]n large part the fight in America is the fight in Israel. And while the words I just said may be different, the sentiment is similar to everyone who is engaged in J Street. We believe in America, and we believe in Israel. But democratic norms and institutions are under fierce attack in both countries we love….
Weingarten conceded that Netanyahu preceded Trump, but they’re two peas in a pod.
We are here to call out and to change a rightwing populist government with a leader who thrives on hatred and division, who mocks and attacks the press, who sees the strangers among us as a danger to be feared and mistreated, not as fellow humans. Hmmm–which country am I speaking about? The truth is Israel beat us to it with a rightwing leaderhsip years before we had Donald Trump…
But here we are. And the similarities are abundant. And frankly I’m not sure when it comes to Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump, I don’t know who’s imitating who.
Jeremy Ben-Ami also made the comparison at the conference. He broadened it to Palestine: it too is saddled with leaders who support terror.
We couldn’t be clearer in warning of the dangers that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu pose to their respective countries… We must offer a vision for tomorrow. For Israel our vision is of a thriving secure state that hasn’t had to choose between being Jewish and democratic, precisely because it has ended occupation [and established a two-state solution]…
We have a vision as well for the United States…. It’s of a United States that is a strong and respected world leader… not causing conflicts… We understand in our bones the importance of offering safety to those in danger and of guaranteeing equality for all regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. That’s why we fight for immigrants and against racism… That’s how we’re going to block an irrational and incompetent president from leading this country to disaster….
Our partners in Israel and Palestine– they too must work to bring in new leaders who will show the courage of those who have ended conflicts, like Sadat and Begin, like Mandela and de Klerk and like the signatories of the Good Friday accord…. Only when there are leaders who are ready to take the tough steps necessary to end their conflict will there be an end to the occupation, an end to the siege of Gaza, and an end to the threat of terror and violence.
An Israeli leftwinger issued a similar challenge. Tamar Zandberg of Meretz said the U.S. feels like Israel to her. Charlottesville is like the occupied West Bank.
Coming to the U..S….at this time feels like home in another not so pleasant way. In both our countries we see these days the same contempt for civil rights, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism and politics of fear all starting at the highest level of government.
There is a clear alliance between the rightwing camps in the Israel and in the US. They sponsor and legitimize one another… it’s an alliance that has had and continues to have ever more dangerous consequences for both our countries…
There is a battle between the ideas of democracy, civil rights and liberalism and democracy and civil rights versus a new form of authoritarian thinking fueled by populist anger. All over the world the idea of liberal democracy is under challenge, sometimes under attack. It’s a struggle that takes place in Tel Aviv and in Charlottesville, in Washington DC and the West Bank, and none of us can win it on our own…
Today we are standing together. Today we are in an unprecedented political moment when the very things that we need to change about Israel have become the same ones you resist and fight for here in the U.S. Today it’s clear that the battle against occupation and the battle for racial equality are the same fight…. Today it’s clear that equality for people of color in America and for Palestinian citizens and Mizrahi Jews in Israel derives from the same principles.
The fight for democracy in Washington and in Jerusalem is the same fight. Netanyahu and Trump they both try to call us un-patriotic… There is nothing more patriotic than a joint struggle for our democracies, and this is what we are doing here tonight together.
Dahlia Scheindlin, the American-Israeli pollster and political analyst, urged Israeli progressives to connect with American progressives on a “package of values” so as to revive the Israeli left:
There’s so much that the US and Israel share in common right now in terms of the progressive and liberal struggle for society against rightwing populism [in the U.S.] that people on the center and the center left in Israel can connect to. The worldview should be a cosmopolitan, open approach to the world rather than an Israel that’s isolated and stuck within itself. I think those various themes need to be part of how to rally the center left in Israel.
Paul Scham, a professor at the University of Maryland and leader of Partners for Progressive Israel, warned the J Street crowd not to give up on Israel. (I’m not sure what idealistic Israeli left he’s speaking about).
I think we have to be able to seize the moment now, to recognize that our situation here, the people working against the populist wave here, are doing the same things that our friends in Israel are doing.
I think one of the most dangerous things that is repeated as a cliché very often, is that the Israeli left is dead. They are not dead… How do we make American Jews who already share values with the Israeli moderate left, how do we make them aware of all the things and the currents that are going on? That they’re not only not dead but very alive.
[We need to] try to make American Jews who are already anti-Trump, who share our values, who want to do something against the current wave– that the struggle in Israel is the same. And one day the only thing I can promise and guarantee, is something will happen that will upset this wave, this hegemony in Israel. Whether it’s an election surprise, whether it’s a war, whether it’s some sort of event that couldn’t be foreseen comparable to Sadat coming to Jerusalem, something will happen and we need to be ready to receive that and realize that those in Israel who have been working on this for so many years need our help, our support and perhaps most of all our awareness and something we share with people who share our views on many things but think that Israel is somehow beyond the pale of criticism.
Scham said that if American Jews lose touch with Israelis, their Jewish identity is at stake:
I conclude by saying… if we forget what is going on in Israel, we cut away an essential part of our own identity. Identifying with the Israeli left is something that is now whether we like it or not part of our Judaism. And that has to be kept in mind. And worked on.
Finally, here’s Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund in a message last week on a new bill approved by the Israeli Cabinet and sure to get a majority in the Knesset too, “that establishes penalties, including a jail term of up to ten years, for anyone who records or distributes video or audio footage of IDF soldiers.” Notice how Sokatch stitches this Israeli threat to Israeli and Palestinian civil rights directly into U.S. politics, as if the authoritarian threat is the same here.
“In Israel, as elsewhere in the world, video footage of police and military activity has become an important tool for human rights groups and the media. It’s part of how citizens can blow the whistle on wrongdoing by authorities. We’ve seen that from Abu Ghraib to the case of Philando Castile. Tyrants restrict the rights of people to record what happens around them; democracies don’t.”
My former editor Gerry Marzorati used to talk about the “contrast gainer”– the comparison that made you look good. No liberal Zionist supports Trump; but Trumpism has been a gift to liberal Zionists: it makes Israel looks a lot better.
Update: Dahlia Scheindlin responded to this post on twitter: “Not sure why I’m now LibZi, but whatevs…fair argument here, tho I disagree: Trump doesn’t make Isrl look better, BB-DT do not create false liberal paradise now lost. Just makes it urgent 4 all prog 2 empower each other where they have common cause.”