The rise of an identity group (Israeli-Americans, for example) tends to follow certain historical patterns. It starts with isolated individuals, who, feeling that they’re somehow incompatible with the establishment (American Jews), find others like themselves, and bond over their mutual differences. Empowered by a new sense of belonging, they discover their own voice and forge a new credo that better represents them. More people join in; as the group grows in numbers and influence, it draws the attention and backing of various interested parties, who subtly inject it with their own agendas. Eventually, succumbing to the inevitable politics of power, the entity alienates some of the very people it was created to represent, setting the stage for a new break-off group.
For Israeli-Americans — a splinter off both Israel and American Jewry — the first round of this cycle is almost complete. Maybe, just maybe, it’s now starting over for Israeli-American liberals.
Last Saturday, in the living room of a private home on the Lower East Side, about 25 Israeli-Americans gathered to discuss forging their own political, liberal-minded faction, which would function as a local branch of the popular Israeli social movement Mechazkim (Strengthening), one of the Israeli left’s first experiments in big-tent politics. Co-organized by Kobi Cohen, a former program director of the leading national Israeli-American establishment group, the Israeli-American Council (IAC); and Gili Getz, a J Street activist and independent theater director, the evening’s featured speaker was Ori Kol, Mechazkim’s 25-year-old founder and a rising star of the Israeli left.
“Among liberal Israeli-Americans, the feeling is that there’s no space for us in the conversation about Israel, that we have no voice of our own,” Getz said, opening his remarks. In a follow-up interview with me, he added, “To avoid controversy, the current tendency is to discuss Israel only in non-political terms. But the ground is not even.… In practice, positions that align with the status quo, i.e., the policies of Israel’s current right-leaning government, are framed as non-political, while positions that oppose it are ruled out as political and divisive.” Getz, notably, is the director of “The Forbidden Conversation,” a one-man autobiographical show exploring the difficulties of discussing Israel in the American-Jewish community.
The IAC currently functions as the community’s official spokesperson, and as such it supports Israel unequivocally as a matter of policy. The group’s silence on matters of contention between the government of Israel and American Jewry — the Kotel crisis, the conversion bill, the nation-state law — has left the wider Jewish community with the impression that Israelis here largely support Bibi Netanyahu. This is inaccurate, Cohen argued. “Many, many Israeli-Americans share American Jews’ feelings and concerns about the religious intolerance in Israel, and the erosion of its democracy,” he said in a phone interview. “We want to show them that we exist, that we can be their partners on the ground.”
The difficulties of liberal Israeli-Americans stem from, and echo those, of the liberal camp in Israel, which, marginalized and bitterly divided (Israel’s parliamentary system pits smaller parties against each other in competition for votes), has, for decades, failed to form a unifying credo. Addressing this problem, Mechazkim launched two years ago as a Facebook page titled “Strengthening the Left on the Net”; it promoted overarching liberal values such as the struggle for democracy, equality, freedom of expression, and freedom from religious oppression. After gaining hundreds of thousands of followers online, the page matured into a full-blown, well-funded social movement.
“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking about reaching out to Israeli-Americans — I came here to visit family,” Kol said. However, the role American Jewry plays in Israeli politics was never lost on him, and after Cohen and Getz both approached Kol separately, the role Israeli-Americans could potentially play in connecting with American Jewry soon became clear as well.
A popular tagline of Mechazkim is “getting the lefties out of the closet.” With encouraging results in Israel, the three hope to replicate the process here and finally provide an address for the thousands of liberal-minded, politically motivated Israeli-Americans who thus far have been cowed into silence. But while people in the meeting spoke passionately about making themselves heard, they were not too eager to do so on the record. “I can’t … the Jewish nonprofit I work for is funded by right-leaning sponsors,” one prominent participant apologized.
So much for coming out of the closet.
Orli Santo is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.