Attitudes Towards Israel

Here’s a provocative question: Does one always have to agree with what the government does if one loves the country? Did those Conservatives that hated President Obama and his policies during his administration love America any less? Do the Liberals who currently opposed President Trump and his policies hate America? I think the answer is clear: Americans can disagree with the government and their policies with loving America any less.

So why is it assumed that American Jews must agree with everything the Israeli government does if we are to support Israel?

Some discussions with my daughter have brought this question to my mind. She has gotten involved with the #IfNotNow movement. This is a movement that is putting pressure on American Jewish institutions (such as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to end their support for the Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories (such as Israel’s construction of settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza). They are organizing a protest against AIPAC at the end of March here in LA, and my daughter asked if I was interested. I looked at their principles, and they seem reasonable: ending support for the occupation, celebrating Jewish diversity, speaking publicly, and being non-violent. While writing this up, I found this interesting article on their protest last April. With all of this on my mind, two articles that came across my RSS feeds and news reading struck a resonating note, and prompted this discussion.

The first was an article from the Jewish Journal on a Bernie Sanders speech at J-Street: In this speech, he pointed out that one could sharply criticize the Israeli government’s policies and be pro-Israel. He also blasted President Donald Trump for retreating from a commitment to a two-state solution and not speaking out forcefully against anti-Semitism and bigotry. He laced his call to urge Israel to adopt more progressive policies with appeals to progressives to embrace Israel as a Jewish homeland. As Sanders said, “We can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American.  We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel. We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”

The attitude that Sanders is protesting is one I’ve seen from members of my congregation; I’m unsure if it is the leadership’s view. There are those in our congregation who are enamored of the views of Prager U (i.e., Dennis Prager’s site, which, like Trump University, isn’t a real university), and who seem to believe that every Muslim is an extremist, and every Muslim is taught from birth to hate Jews and hate Israel. I think the response to the recent vandalism attacks in St. Louis and Philadelphia have demonstrated the opposite: it is the Muslim community that has helped the Jewish community rebuild; in turn, the Jewish community has helped rebuild mosques in the US. If anything, I think the recent attitudes in the US have strengthened Jewish-Muslim relationships in a way that benefits both communities. Muslim veterans are even offering to defend Jewish sites. Yet there are many that refuse to see this.

The two communities can live together in peace, and have done so in the past when extremism and hatred is not in the picture. That’s not the case now. A subset of Palestinians and many in the Palestinian leadership are opposed to Israel’s existence in any way, shape, or form, and they are doing whatever they can to make Israel look bad in the eyes of the world, to provoke Israel to attack them, and to put civilians on both sides in danger. Israel isn’t helping them by building settlements in disputed areas, or through how they respond to attacks (although no one expects them just to sit silently). Meanwhile, misinformation is fed out to supporters around the world, inflaming attitudes as opposed to calming attitudes.

This brings us to the second article: from the NY Times on “Liberal Zionism”. For those unfamilar with Zionism, it is the desire for a Jewish Homeland — a Jewish-majority state where Jews will be safe. It was advanced by Theodor Herzl back in the early 1900s, and led to the Balfour Declaration in 1919 that artificially created many of the states in the Middle East out of former Ottoman Empire territory as British and French protectorates. Zionism and the Holocaust in WWII is what led to declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. Opposition to Zionism, by some, is viewed as equivalent as opposition to Judaism; many antisemites hold the belief that Zionism is racism. Zionism is what drives much of the policies of Israel: the goal of maintaining a Jewish majority in the state of Israel so as to preserve Israel as a Jewish state. In many ways, this is similar to opposition to immigration here in America: there is fear that as the Hispanic population grows, America will lose its character as a “Caucasian” (i.e., European-based) nation. This fear has driven many to support Trump (it is not a fear that I personally have).

The opinion piece in the Times talked about the growing alliance between Zionist leadership and politicians with antisemitic tendencies (such as Trump, Bannon, and his followers). The author believed this alliance had the power to transform Jewish-American consciousness for years to come. It talked about how, in the last few decades, many of America’s Jewish communities have grown accustomed to living in a political contradiction. On one hand, a large majority of these communities could rightly take pride in a powerful liberal tradition, stretching back to such models as Louis Brandeis — a defender of social justice and the first Jew to become a Supreme Court justice — or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched in Selma alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the other hand, the same communities have often identified themselves with Zionism, a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics. Specifically, it is the traditional Zionist policies that have pushed down rights for the Palestinians, and has supported the Israeli government’s occupation (which ties into #IfNotNow).

Here’s an interesting quote from that opinion piece:

But despite sympathy and solidarity with Israel — or better, because of it — any Jew who remains committed to liberalism must insist that nothing in Jewish history can allow the Jews to violate the rights of other ethnic and religious minorities, and that nothing in our history suggests that it would be wise for us to do so.

This is all the more true because by denying liberal principles, Zionism immediately becomes continuous with — rather than contradictory to — the anti-Semitic politics of the sort promoted by the alt-right. The idea that Israel is the Jews’ own ethnic state implies that Jews living outside of it — say, in America or in Europe — enjoy a merely diasporic existence. That is another way of saying that they inhabit a country that is not genuinely their own. Given this logic, it is natural for Zionist and anti-Semitic politicians to find common ideas and interests. Every American who has been on a Birthright Israel tour should know that left-leaning Israelis can agree with America’s alt-right that, ideally, ”Jews should live in their own country.”

The opinion piece seems to be arguing for a different form of Zionism: a form of Zionism that preserves Israel’s character as a Jewish state without having the hatred for Muslims and Arabs; a form of Israel that is officially Jewish while still ensuring the rights of other religions to practice. Can this be done? One need look no further than many Commonwealth nations such as the UK and Canada. Officially, they are Christian nations, but they permit free practice of religion. There is no reason that Israel couldn’t remain a constitutionally Jewish state even with a population that included large numbers of Muslims and Christians. Judaism, as a religion, accepts that there are other religions in the world that are practiced; Progressive Judaism accepts that there are many valid paths to God — a believe that goes back to the Noachide laws that are the basis for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I found an even longer piece on Liberal Zionism in Tablet, but it is unclear if it is the same LZ as in the NY Times piece. In particular, the piece goes back and forth between Liberal Zionism and Liberal Nationalism, but only giving loose definitions of Liberal Nationalism. There are no definitions of LZ or clarifications of the differences. As for Liberal Nationalism, it defines that as follows: “liberal nationalism takes the natural tendency to clump together and infuses the resulting communities with democratic ideals.” But having read through the article a number of times, I can’t figure out their point, other than their form of Zionism is opposed to Trumps’ form.

The desire to maintain the Jewish character of the state of Israel is the real Zionist notion. One way to achieve that is the two-state solution: segregating Palestinians into their own state, and Jews into another. As we’ve seen, that is fraught with tension. Trump’s latest opening of an idea of a one-state solution has different tensions: how do you preserve the Jewish nature of a democratic state if you have a voting public that is equal under the constitution and Islam is in the majority. There are many untested ideas, from two-states sharing one-territory (cooperation on secular issues — roads, highways, etc.) to a constitutionally Jewish state with freedom to practice religion (the UK model), to an Islamic state. But, as with replacing Obamacare, it is a very complex issue. If it wasn’t complex, it would have been solved by now.

This all made me curious what ARZA’s attitude on all of this is. ARZA is the Association of Reform Zionists of America — basically, the Reform Movement’s Zionist arm. They are opposed to illegal settlements and the regulation bill, yet still believe in the two-state solution, stating: “However, given demographic realities in the region, one democratic state between the Mediterranean  Sea and  the Jordan River would eventually bring an end to Israel’s character  as a Jewish  State. The alternative, Israel’s rejecting democracy,  should be unthinkable.” I also found an extremely interesting piece on the ARZA blog from December by Liya Rechtman:

As a Jewish Israeli-American, I believe that the same standards apply to my American patriotism as to my Zionism. That is to say, protesting and criticizing Israel is an act of love and necessary for the continued viability of the Zionist project.

I am writing now from my favorite café in Jerusalem. I am here between meetings with my editor (about a piece I’m working on the uniqueness of Israel as a physical place) and my anti-Occupation collective. I am deeply committed to the vision of the Association of Reform Zionists of America to connect American Reform Jews to Israel and build the Reform Movement in Israel, and I stand with If Not Now when they protest Jewish institutions that refuse to stand up against the Occupation. These actions and affiliations are not in contradiction with each other but in concert.

I am not the same kind of Zionist as my parents, but I am a Zionist. I am a Zionist in that I care about the future of the Jewish people, and our future is inextricably intertwined with the Jewish State. I am a Zionist in that I am a feminist and therefore I believe in the specificity of space, and that the material, tangible world matters. I am a Zionist in that I believe in the right of all peoples, including the Jewish people, to self-determination.

Reading through all of this, whereas I had feared our approaches might be different, we seem to have come around to the same place in the end.