David Suissa: Why won’t liberals defend Israel?
As I was reading about “engagement” — the new buzzword regarding Israel that came out of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial this past weekend in San Diego — I wondered: Did anyone at the convention notice the other hot word circulating regarding the Jewish state?
This one would be the all-too familiar “B” word: Boycott.
While America’s largest Jewish denomination was discussing its engagement with Israel, the American Studies Association (ASA) became the country’s largest academic group to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. This comes on the heels of a similar boycott last April, by the Association for Asian American Studies.
These nasty assaults on Israel don’t just violate the spirit of academia; more importantly, they discriminate against the Jewish state. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the ASA president himself, Curtis Marez, who admitted to The New York Times that there are plenty of nations in the world with a worse human rights record than Israel’s.
So, he was asked, why pick on Israel?
In a statement that might well enter the anti-Semitic Hall of Fame, Marez replied, “One has to start somewhere.”
Forget about starting with nations where women are stoned to death, gays are lynched and children are murdered.
No, Marez has to start somewhere — so why not start with the Jews?
Activist lawyer Alan Dershowitz issued a clever challenge to Marez’s group while they were considering the boycott: “I asked them to name a single country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces that has had a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government than the State of Israel.”
As Dershowitz writes in Haaretz, “Not a single member of the association came up with a name of a single country. That is because there are none. Israel is not perfect, but neither is any other country, and Israel is far better than most.”
Here’s the point: You can be the biggest peacenik in the world and criticize Israeli settlements all day long and still be completely justified in expressing revulsion at the blatant discrimination routinely inflicted on Israel.
Which brings me to the new buzzword on Israel for the URJ — engagement — which Allison Kaplan Sommer describes in Haaretz as “the trendy umbrella term that both acknowledges the existence of disagreement in the relationship, and endorses using any avenue of interest to get Reform Jews more involved with Israel.”
These disagreements, which include the need for greater respect within Israel for non-Orthodox streams, are genuine and should not be downplayed.
But here’s my question for URJ head Rabbi Rick Jacobs: You spoke eloquently at the biennial about your deep love for Israel and the need to engage Israel, but why did you not speak about the need to defend Israel against unfair and discriminatory attacks?
Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the global lies that have soiled the name of Israel?
Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the hypocrisy of the United Nations, where Israel gets condemned more than the top 16 violators of human rights combined?
Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the anti-Zionist BDS movement that aims only to delegitimize the Jewish state you so love?
I get that the focus of your movement’s relationship with Israel is based around a healthy and honest engagement of issues, with some “tough love” thrown in, just as one would do with family.
But there’s something else one does with family: One defends it when it is unfairly attacked.
One thing I admire about Rabbi Jacobs is how he jumps over the walls that often divide the Jewish family, as when he recently attended the annual gathering of the Chabad movement. I’ve heard him talk of how we can all learn from one another.
So, next time the rabbi is in Tel Aviv, I have an idea for another wall he can jump: Visit the offices of Shurat HaDin (the Israel Law Center), and hear from legal expert Nitsana Darshan-Leitner how the ASA boycott violates international, federal and state law in the United States, and how her group plans to defend Israel against this illegal and unconscionable assault.
Also, hear about the group’s track record of bringing lawyers from across the world to prosecute institutions, governments and private companies that discriminate against Israel. If you like what you hear, find out how your movement can help.
Fighting discrimination — whether against Israel or any other country — should be a proud liberal cause. One can engage and even criticize Israel and also fight to defend it against unfair attacks. Liberal icon Dershowitz, who criticizes Israeli settlements, is a rare case of a liberal lover of Israel who’s not afraid to take the gloves off to defend the Jewish state.
He should be the keynote speaker at the next Reform convention.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.