At a rally for Israel held in July at the Whippany headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, an Israeli diplomat thanked the hundreds of people who turned out on a Monday morning to stand with Israel during the Gaza crisis. “We know that what happens in Israel is as if it happens in New Jersey,” he said. His was the heartwarming rhetoric of Jewish unity, a recurring theme of Diaspora fund-raising campaigns for Israel. “We are one” may no longer be the slogan of the annual UJA campaign, but it encapsulates what most mainstream Jewish organizations, schools, and synagogues consider the idealized relationship between world Jewry and Israel.
Connection to Israel is not the sum total of American-Jewish identity, but it is a top priority of its main institutions. Almost every synagogue displays an Israeli flag along with an American one. Nearly every Jewish day school, outside of the fervently Orthodox, considers Zionism and ahavat Yisrael — love for Israel — as an important if not central part of its curriculum. Our most visible Jewish organizations — JFNA, ADL, AJC, and Hadassah — spend much of their budgets on supporting and defending Israel. When it came time to address a crisis in Jewish identity among disengaged young Diaspora Jews, the best-known organizational response was Birthright — free trips that use exposure to Israel to inspire participants about Jewish belonging.
Those of us who care deeply for Israel or consider it essential to our own Jewish identities would have it no other way. Observing Israel, debating Israel, and visiting Israel are essential to many of our lives as Jews. We celebrate its victories and accomplishments, mourn its losses, defend its very existence against those who want it to die or disappear.
And as we saw during this depressing summer, many in the Diaspora have paid the price for such support. Across Europe and the Muslim world, and in some pockets of North America, protests against Israel have quickly morphed into attacks on Jews and their institutions. Protesters of the Gaza war have invoked Nazi imagery in a way that simultaneously compares Jews to their murderers and embraces the Nazis’ genocidal program. In enforcing a thuggish street boycott, crowds in Britain have swept kosher products off of store shelves. Individual Jews have been attacked and their institutions vandalized; cultural institutions have rejected Jewish artists because a portion of their funding originated in Israel.
Apologists for such acts suggest they represent a legitimate, if sometimes overzealous, reaction to a war protesters consider unjust. Israel derives a lot of its influence abroad from the activism of Jewish Zionists, they reason, so that makes Diaspora Jews legitimate targets for demonstrations and angry rhetoric. And if you really want anti-Semitism to crawl back into its hole, they say, Israel should stop building settlements and give Palestinians their state.
Such rhetoric is often a trap for Diaspora Jews. If you disagree with their logic, you allow them to draw a wedge between us and Israel. To say “Just because we are Jewish doesn’t mean we support Israel” is both cowardly and hypocritical. If we act astonished when anti-Semitism rises in reaction to events in the Middle East, we come off as disingenuous. If we isolate Israel from the discussion about modern-day anti-Semitism, we won’t have an honest understanding of its causes or solutions, nor make meaningful distinctions about what anti-Semitism meant in 1939, and what it means now that we have a Jewish state.
On the other hand, if we fully embrace the premise of the apologists — somehow allowing every Jew to be turned into a foot soldier for Israel and every synagogue into an Israeli embassy — we are condoning a host of anti-Semitic acts and attitudes. The charge that Jews are agents for foreign interests is as old, insidious, and slanderous as the blood libel. The disproportionate attention given to Israel — which already reeks of a hate-filled double standard — becomes an all-too-convenient cudgel with which to isolate and marginalize the Jews.
Our goal then has to be two-fold: remaining vigilant against transparent forms of anti-Semitism, while owning our Zionism.
Vigilance means speaking out whenever protests devolve into the classic rhetoric and symbolism of Jew hatred: swastikas, blood libels, conspiracy theories. We must reject depictions of Israel as a spearhead of Western colonialism — a clash between “European” and “brown” people — and explain how that narrative depends on a stereotypical and caricatured image of the “Jew” that ignores the diverse reality of Israel (which includes, not coincidentally, brown and black people who were either thrown out of or made miserable in a wide range of non-European, “post-colonial” countries). And we need to keep reminding people that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is not anti-Semitic because it seeks justice for the Palestinians, but because it sees no place for the Jewish state or the Jews who live there.
Owning our Zionism, meanwhile, means telling its harshest critics, “Yes, as Jews we support Israel. We don’t elect its government, but we care deeply for its people and their security. You have a problem with that? We’re not afraid. Cross the line and we’ll call you out, but because our cause is right and true, we are not going to cower when you come with your allegations and smears.”