November 18, 2018

Israel and America: Despair or Opportunity

As children growing up in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, we were taught that Israel would be a “Light unto the Nations.” We were proud of the progressive values inscribed in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, declaring that Israel would “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants … ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex (and) …guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Back then, Israel still felt like a miracle. Today, the vision of Israel’s founders seems like a disappearing dream. There is a growing sense of desperation among many American Jews and Israelis as they watch Israel’s governing coalition, still held in the grasp of far-right Jewish nationalists, thwart individuals and organizations working for an open, pluralistic, equitable and peaceful society. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump and his first presidential orders presage at least four years of similar policies and a reversal of the advances made by forward-minded citizens.

All this is taking place in the context of a rapidly changing political environment across the West. Populist movements are gaining greater political power, Euro-skeptics are promoting the disintegration of the European Union, with Brexit the first reflection of this rising tide, and the new American President threatens to break away from global treaties and agreements. Regional orders are disassembling, even as the proposed new order is not yet known.

For the first time since the establishment of Israel, ultra-nationalist and jingoistic leaders in Israel and the U.S., inspired by the same values and sources, have built institutions and created cross-national movements to bring their ideologically-driven plans to fruition. For the first time, moderate and progressive Jews in Israel and the U.S. are subjected to attacks by the reactionary, racist, and agitating policies of their respective governments.

To live and experience these complementary realities in both Israel and America is painful. It is tempting to despair. Yet, these threatening days have also created the potential for new positive realities. If our antagonists are so closely aligned, isn’t it time to establish a coalition that will act together, coordinate and inspire one another to advance shared values and policies?

We believe that time has come. It is time for us, as equal partners, to assess the political landscapes in which we live and identify issues that we can study, strategize, and act upon together.

There are worrisome developments in both countries that we must address: growing economic gaps, political and corporate corruption, the blurred lines between church and state, threats to a freely functioning media, and many more. Only despair stops us from examining and acting upon all of these.

Perhaps most urgently, it is time for us to look together at the great internal existential threat Israel faces – its continued rule as occupying power in the West Bank and control of some three million Palestinians – and consider its effect on both of our communities: the threat this poses to the possibility of Israel being a democratic homeland for the Jewish people; the alienation, isolation, and identity conflict increasingly felt by American Jews, especially our youth.

Since 1948, there have been two exemplary experiences of Jews living in open societies: in the State of Israel and in the United States. Progressives, pragmatists and moderates in Israel and the U.S. now have a common interest in resisting the rise of radical nationalistic populism, so that we can maintain our ability to realize, in both countries, our core and treasured values.

We both have a stake in opposing Trump’s regressive policies and proposals. We both have a stake in fighting the internal erosion of democratic institutions and norms in Israel. We both have an interest learning from each other and engaging together in our common cause. If we do so, it will be the silver lining on the dark clouds hovering above us.

Let us remember, even in these dark days, despair is not the answer. Despair dulls our dreams and takes away our hope. We must help each other resist despair and embrace what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. “What makes this hope radical,” Lear writes, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.”

Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency, is a writer living in the community of Nataf outside Jerusalem. Jonathan Jacoby, the founding director of New Israel Fund and former President of Israel Policy Forum, is a consultant living in Los Angeles. Their fathers, Yosef Burg and Emil Jacoby, worked together in Paris after WWII to aid Holocaust survivors.