David Suissa: Fair-weather Zionists
What do you do if an annoying and exasperating friend gets in trouble and really needs your help? And what do you do if that friend is also a blood relative, like Israel? I often ask myself that question about progressive, pro-Israel Jews who are furious at the direction in which their beloved Israel is going.
Is there a point when they will just decide to “dump” Israel?
I got a sobering answer last week when I read in Haaretz about a Jew whose “resume reads like a love poem to the world of Jewish activism.” According to the article by Adam Chandler, this Jew has been “an extremely visible advocate for progressive Israeli and Jewish causes as well as an outspoken watchdog against anti-Semitism.”
It turns out that a few weeks ago, this progressive, pro-Israel Jewish activist, Daniel Sieradski, announced to his 2,400 followers on Twitter that he had had enough.
“I’ve decided that after 10 years of fighting for a progressive Israeli course correction, that our efforts are futile,” he wrote in June. “I officially give up. As the Jewish nation proceeds to march off a cliff, I will now go back to caring about everything else I cared about before Israel.”
Sayonara, Israel. I’m done with you, and I will make sure all my followers know that I’m done with you.
As Chandler warns us: “Considering Sieradski’s large following and his pioneer status, one might expect his declaration to precipitate a similar wave of emotional and ideological disengagement from Israel by other young, like-minded American Jews.”
But in Chandler’s view, Israel had it coming: “It’s no surprise that progressives are disillusioned. The continuing expansion of settlements and the Boycott Law are manifestations of trends in Israel that make it increasingly difficult for many of us to speak in its favor in public forums abroad, on college campuses, even at kitchen tables.”
Well, what do you readers think? Does Israel really have it coming? Has it screwed up so badly that it deserves to be “dumped” by disappointed Jewish progressives?
I took that question to my friend Gerald Bubis’ house last week, where he was hosting a salon in honor of Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.
After hearing Sokatch rattle off a long list of progressive projects that his organization supports in Israel — programs dealing with civil and human rights, social and economic justice, religious pluralism and tolerance, Israeli Arabs and Bedouin citizens, the environment and women’s rights — the only question on my mind was: Is Sieradski out of his mind? Has he not seen the progressive activity happening all over Israel?
Sokatch didn’t try to hide his dismay with some recent decisions by the Israeli government. But the extraordinary effect of his presentation was this: Government policy notwithstanding, there’s a whole lot of democratic action going on in Israel.
In fact, I think a great PR idea to engage young liberal Jews would be to have Sokatch go on college campuses and talk about how his group is helping advance progressive efforts in Israel: helping disadvantaged children of immigrants integrate into Israeli society; promoting empowerment activities for women and youth in Arab villages; providing legal help to establish and protect civil and human rights throughout the country; advancing the status of Jewish women whose rights have been violated by religious laws; helping protect the environment in the Galilee; and so on.
Sure, critics on the right have accused the New Israel Fund of supporting groups with anti-Israel views — but that kind of extreme liberalism is even more of a reason for progressives like Sieradski not to jump the Zionist ship.
Even a paper like the Los Angeles Times, while reporting on the Boycott Law, tried to keep things in perspective: “Examples of free speech in Israel are easy to find. Arab-Israeli lawmakers frequently attack the government as ‘racist’ on the Knesset floor … newspaper pundits don’t hesitate to launch character attacks against the prime minister.”
So, here’s my question. You’re a progressive supporter of Israel and you see the government doing things that really upset you. What do you look at — the government’s mistakes or the “corrective mechanism” that’s working on the ground to correct these mistakes? Do you get demoralized by the faults or rejuvenated by the freedom to fight these faults?
When you look at the thousands of people protesting right now throughout Israel, many of them sleeping in tents, do you think only of criticizing the government or do you also think of helping the protesters?
Someone like Sokatch looks at Israel’s faults and says, “What can I do to help?” Someone like Sieradski, after years of helping, now looks at Israel’s faults and says, “What can I do but bail?”
The truth is, Israel is a mess in progress. It is a country surrounded by enemies that has nevertheless created a civil society like no other in the Middle East. For all its many faults, there is a restless energy to make things better — what Sokatch calls “democracy in action.”
Progressive Zionists who don’t appreciate this duality, and who end up bailing on Israel, are like friends who only love you when you’re not around.