May 26, 2019

Dangerous Signs

Leaders in the American-Jewish community recently have warned against four dangerous developments in Israel: The drift toward one binational state; the hegemony, or rather the dictatorship, of Orthodoxy in Israel, which marginalizes non-Orthodox communities; the treatment of the asylum seekers; and the constant attacks on the Israeli Supreme Court.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an op-ed in the March 18  New York Times, in which he addressed the first two issues, which he called “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds.” Identifying himself as a Republican and a longtime Likud Party supporter, Lauder warned that If current trends continue, Israel will face a stark choice: Grant Palestinians full rights and cease being a Jewish state or rescind their rights and cease being a democracy. “To avoid these unacceptable outcomes,” Lauder concluded, “the only path forward is the two-state solution.”

Then Lauder lamented “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora.” He warned that many diaspora Jews “have come to feel, particularly over the last few years, that the nation that they have supported politically, financially and spiritually is turning its back on them.” This crisis is even more serious among Jewish millennials, Lauder added, and they are “distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradict their values.”

The third issue is Israel’s treatment of its African asylum seekers. American Jews rejoiced when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had reached an agreement with the United Nations on how to solve the problem. However, it took Netanyahu only six hours to cave in to pressure from his far-right base, and to kill the deal. Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and even the board of The Jewish Agency, expressed their bitter disappointment. “People care about this issue,” prominent Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs told Amir Tibon of Haaretz (April 3). “It goes to the heart of our shared values as Jews.”

As one Jewish leader told Haaretz, “The [Israeli] government is making it harder for us to defend Israel.”

Finally, there is the ongoing attempt to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court, with the latest move being the decision of the Israeli government to propose a bill that will restrict the power of the court to cancel laws that it finds to be unconstitutional. It took none other than a staunch supporter of Israel, law professor Alan Dershowitz, to warn against such a move.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 1 (May 6), Dershowitz said: “The Israeli judiciary is the jewel of Israeli democracy. When I make the case for Israel around the world, I always focus on the strength of the judiciary. It would be a terrible tragedy if its independence would be in any way diminished by the actions of the Knesset. I hope the prime minister will not allow politics to harm the rule of law.”

That these four issues should have troubled every Israeli, even without the warnings of American Jews, goes without saying. However, these warnings represent a fifth problem for Israelis, which might be as serious as the rest: The danger of losing our best friends and allies, American Jews. As one Jewish leader told Amir Tibon of Haaretz, “The [Israeli] government is making it harder for us to defend Israel.”

The problem is that most Israelis are either not aware of the feelings of their American-Jewish friends, or, worse, they just don’t care. This unfortunate situation, however, is not irreversible. I know from personal experience that things can be different.

More than 30 years ago, I was a member of the Israeli Forum, an organization of young Israelis and American Jews, who forged direct, personal relations and worked together on projects that strengthened the bonds between the two communities. We bypassed the Israeli government and just did the jobs ourselves. Many of us, Israelis, made lifelong  American-Jewish friends.

My advice to the leaders of the American-Jewish community: During your next trip to Israel, don’t waste time on meeting with government ministers and officials. Instead of listening to their hollow speeches about “Jewish unity,” go meet regular Israelis, students, civic society activists and such. Share with them your anxieties and hopes, and trust me, you’ll find them willing to listen.

Uri Dromi is the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. From 1992-96, he was a spokesman for the Israeli government.