Don’t say liberal Jews aren’t supportive of Israel

Don’t say liberal Jews aren’t supportive of Israel

Ed Robin and Steven Windmueller
Ed Robin and Steven Windmueller

The Jewish community is currently bereft and preoccupied by a series of political wars, involving the current administrations both in Washington and Jerusalem. They include issues of Israeli settlements, annexation, and human rights practices, and the broader issues of American foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. What is needed now is a collective effort to grow the pro-Israel agenda regardless of one’s political base.

Accordingly, the broad-brushed assault on Jewish progressives is counterproductive and should be a non-starter. Just as we ought not to identify all Jewish conservatives with a single brush, the liberal camp ought to be seen as an assortment of multiple voices and diverse political viewpoints. This is a moment in time when we need to embrace the substantial number of Jews on the political left who care about Israel.

When journalists and others from the political right go after “progressives” with a wide swath of calumny over their criticisms of some Israel government policies, they delegitimize mainstream Jewish liberals and imperil their efforts to operate effectively within the multiple circles that comprise the progressive camp in general and the Jewish political left in particular.

The broad brush of criticism often begins with the implication that diaspora Jews ought not to be questioning Israeli government statements, seeing these inquiries as usurping the rights and privileges exclusively afforded Israelis. This implication cuts deeply against strongly held views and habits of members of our democratic society and in fact against the grain of Jewish history.

This attempted discrediting and delegitimization of those who critique actions and policies of the Jewish state seem to be in part an attempted redefinition of the diaspora-Israel connection. Where once a robust dialogue involving world Jewry and its Israel partners had been encouraged and nurtured, today many wish to impose a veil of silence. The political right has sought to push back against diaspora criticism on matters associated with the definition and character of the Jewish state. These issues deeply affect diaspora Jews as they extend beyond decisions of war and peace, subject areas widely acknowledged to be the purview of Israel’s citizens. 

In the past, Israel’s government leaders officially refrained from entering into the internal politics of diaspora Jewish communities and countries. Today one can observe a growing intrusion by Jerusalem into such internal debates and conversations. This new assertiveness is seemingly supported, and even encouraged, by groups on the Jewish political right who hope to marginalize any political opposition and welcome, in particular, the Israeli political establishment endorsing positions of our nation’s current leadership. This approach has had some short-term benefits both for Israel and the Jewish right but weakens the 60-year bipartisan consensus in connection with Israel. And support for Israeli government positions is converted from being seen as an issue unifying the community to one that is divisive.

Criticism by some on the right extends well beyond the boundaries of politics as it reflects an attack on non-Orthodox Jews, their religious institutions, and in certain instances their political credentials. Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews are described as lacking a belief in Zionism and a commitment to Jewish peoplehood, and even worse as not being authentically Jewish.   

Labeling these communities of Jews as “assimilated” and “uninterested” in the welfare of the Jewish people has the effect of discrediting both liberal Judaism and Jewish liberal political behavior. Implied and sometimes explicit is that these Jewish “non-believers” are de facto BDS supporters and friends of Hamas. This line of attack is destructive to the welfare of the Jewish community and ultimately to the support for Israel. American liberal Zionism ought not to be marginalized or underestimated but needs to be embraced as a critical resource in the battle to win support among those Jews who today sit outside of the pro-Israel community.

A new challenge now faces pro-Israel voices within the Democratic Party. Not only must they push back against the Jewish right and its criticisms, they now are engaged in battles with fellow progressives who have broken with them on Israel.  Across the country Jewish Democrats are encountering BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and anti-Israel activists in their communities who are seeking to mobilize audiences, especially a younger cohort to oppose U.S. support for the State of Israel. And the anti-Semitic expressions of Rep. Ilhan Omar are additional evidence of the growing magnitude of the problem.  Kudos to the Democratic establishment for its prompt condemnation of this conduct.

Supporting mainstream pro-Israel Jewish Democrats ought to be the preferred strategy. It is indeed challenging enough inside the tumult of party politics to handle disruptive and competing positions. The Democratic friends of Israel ought not to feel besieged by the Jewish right, just as they are seeking to hold their party to its historic pro-Israel

Nuance has left the stage in these broadside attacks on fellow Jews. There has been a tendency to label all groups that critique specific Israeli policies or actions as political enemies. The case for Israel requires allies and supporters from all quarters. The best strategy remains a vibrant bipartisan commitment to the American-Israel relationship. A robust conversation on the character and substance of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state ought to be an essential ingredient in forging a healthy and engaged diaspora. And that conversation will help assure the future of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and substance. 

Ed Robin is a longtime volunteer in the American-Jewish community. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

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