Open letter to Israeli voters

Open letter to Israeli voters

Martin J. Raffel
Martin J. Raffel

You, the Israeli voter, have an important election coming up and, in my view, the opinions of American Jews matter.

Although I studied and worked in Israel for over seven years, and subsequently devoted some 40 years of my professional life working to build U.S. support for Israel, I’m not a citizen of the Jewish state. Therefore, quite justifiably, I don’t get to vote. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll reflect on my message when choosing which party to vote for on Sept. 17. I’m worried, very worried, about the future health of the relationship between Israel and the American-Jewish community. 

“Why,” you ask, “should we Israelis care? After all, you live comfortably and relatively safely in America, while we face the constant insecurity of living in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood and bear the consequences, for good or ill, of our leaders’ decisions.” Excellent question, and here are two reasons why you should care:

First, from its inception, Israel defined a relationship with world Jewry as central to its core identity. That’s why Israel’s Law of Return grants all Jews the right to obtain automatic citizenship. And that’s why the Knesset in July 2018 passed a basic law declaring Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people — the Jewish people, not merely its citizens. I believe we Jews, whether living in Israel or outside of the country, are entitled to discuss our respective challenges openly and honestly, and to be taken seriously.

Second, Israel is strong, with an army capable of defending the country against all its enemies. Yet, I think you will agree that over the decades bipartisan U.S. support has been an essential component of Israel’s national security. Would this support have been forthcoming if the American-Jewish community had not made a huge investment in Israel advocacy? Maybe, to some degree. But efforts by American Jews have made a significant impact in assuring the constancy of U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support. 

The sustainability of strong American-Jewish support for Israel is not a given. In fact, the data are clear — American Jews, especially the younger generation, are distancing themselves from the Jewish state.

That is the conclusion of a July 2018 report published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Diminished American-Jewish support, the report observed, could lead future U.S. administrations to reduce security assistance to Israel and/or to withhold use of the U.S. veto in the United Nations (UN), which has shielded Israel from many anti-Israel resolutions in the UN’s Security Council.

In explaining the growing alienation of American Jews from Israel, especially among the young generation, the INSS report emphasizes the negative impact of the lack of equality in Israel between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious streams. It cites damage caused by the National Conversion Law, which gives the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over religious conversions in Israel, and the freeze placed on the Western Wall egalitarian prayer plan. 

Many American Jews understand that the stranglehold of the Chief Rabbinate on key sectors of Israeli public life is the product of Israel’s political system, which, historically, has made the ultra-Orthodox religious parties pivotal in the formation of coalitions. Yet, you should know that non-Orthodox American Jews are growing weary of their second-class status in the Jewish state.

From my perch here in America, the Palestinian issue seems to be getting very little play in the Israeli election campaign. But make no mistake about it, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people for more than half a century is having a deleterious effect on the Israel-U.S. relationship. For American Jews, support for Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people is not merely a slogan. It is a core value — the democratic part of the equation no less important than the Jewish part. That is why virtually all major Jewish organizations endorse the “two states for two peoples” formula — the only formula many American Jews believe can preserve Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic character. 

Most of us appreciate how difficult it has been to advance the peace process with a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership either unable or unwilling to compromise. And in the face of unrelenting violence from Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, we support all measures necessary to protect the safety of Israel’s citizens.

But the current government’s continued building of Jewish homes in the heart of the West Bank and recent talk about possibly annexing settlements suggest that the commitment to a future two-state outcome may be off the table.

We know a comprehensive agreement isn’t achievable anytime soon. But Commanders for Israel’s Security, a movement founded in 2014 by former senior Israeli security officials, has identified numerous interim measures Israel can take that build toward two states — measures that don’t jeopardize, and may even enhance, Israel’s security. In my opinion, if Israel pursues policies that lead to permanent domination over millions of Palestinians, it would devastate Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jews. 

As a small minority in our country, we American Jews pay close attention to how Israel treats its non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian Arab, minority. In recent years, Israel has made impressive strides toward equalizing resources and services. Yet, there is concern about legislation, such as the nation-state law, and policies that project second-class status onto Israel’s Arab citizens. American Jews have a vision of an Israel that preserves its status as nation-state of the Jewish people, but also extends itself to make all citizens feel equal and welcome.

On the subject of democracy, many American Jews view with alarm the prospect of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu using his government and Knesset majority to pass legislation curtailing the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court — which has been a bulwark in the protection of human rights and civil liberties — strictly for the purpose of immunizing himself against criminal prosecution. 

Then, there is the Trump factor. I don’t think this requires much elaboration. I’m aware that there is a widespread perception on your end that President Donald Trump is good for Israel. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights; and withdrew from an Iran nuclear agreement unpopular in Israel. We can debate whether or not those steps were good for Israel. What I don’t think is debatable is that our president seems to be doing everything in his power to decimate bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. 

By using fear-mongering tactics, he has baselessly attempted to paint the Democratic Party, the party to which a large majority of American Jews belong, as not only anti-Israel but also anti-Semitic. Many American-Jewish leaders and scholars, including experts such as Deborah Lipstadt, as reported in April in NJJN, regard Trump as an enabler of anti-Semitism while our community has been under unprecedented violent assault from white supremacists. It cannot help our relationship when Israel’s current leaders fawn over Trump and appear ready to do his every bidding, including by inexcusably preventing the visit to Israel of two Democratic members of U.S. Congress. Remember, Trump will not be president forever. In fact, you may be faced with a Democratic administration in early 2021.

Let me be clear. Only one generation removed from the Holocaust, my relationship with and love for Israel — forged during the period of the epic Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars and the years spent living in Jerusalem — is permanent. I truly feel blessed to live in a time when after two millennia, sovereignty has been restored to our much-persecuted Jewish people. Nothing can dissuade me from engaging with like-minded partners to advance religious pluralism in Israel, preserve the viability of a two-state outcome, build a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens, and maintain robust bipartisan U.S. backing of a secure and democratic Israel. But I worry that others, whose commitment does not run as deep as mine, will choose to walk away rather than stand up and fight for our values. And along with them will go the kind of strong and consistent American-Jewish support Israel has long maintained.

So, dear Israeli voter, when you go to the polls Sept. 17, please keep my message in mind. 

Todah rabah.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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