The deterioration of Israel’s democracy in recent weeks has been so extreme and speedy that all Jews must now do whatever we can to save Israel from itself.
For Jewish communities in the United States, this is an especially weighty duty. Most such communities have attempted to support Israel by defending its government and policies from any American intervention, including fighting against any U.S. policy measures that restrict funding to Israel for any reason.
This mistake has always been costly for both the victims of Israeli policies and for Israel itself: in effect, it has always served as a huge boost to right-wing governments and policies in Israel. But with the swearing in of a most horrendous, illiberal, anti-democratic, Jewish-supremacist government, it has become an unbearable one.
Even if the justification of boycotts has in the past been questionable, I think that American Jews owe it to Israel, and to Israelis like myself, to promote such measures now. After the disproportionate Israeli military incursion into Jenin, and the predictably tragic cycle of violence it engendered the next day in Jerusalem, Israel’s far-right government is using this as an opportunity to further their own political goals. We cannot allow this kind of illiberalism to continue.
In the current circumstances, supporting Israel can only mean opposing its policies and government. It can only mean standing up for the values that Israel was supposed to be about — the democratic, liberal values that the overwhelming majority of Jewish communities in the U.S. hold dear.
Supporting Israel has to mean promoting its deepest interests — namely, to be a decent state, one in which women are not systematically excluded from positions of power or from segregated public events, one with a reasonable balance of power between the different branches of government, one with a non-politicized education system and one that respects the dignity and relationships of members of the LGBTQ community.
Supporting Israel has to mean also — perhaps primarily — fighting the all-corrupting occupation and the oppression of millions of Palestinians that comes along with it, an occupation that the current government is determined to strengthen in more and more violent means. And the way to do this now — to support Israel rather than its government or policies — is by exerting pressure.
I know from conversations with many American Jews that they often feel that criticizing Israel, and certainly pressuring Israel, is not their place. The claim is sometimes made that any such measures by Americans to influence Israeli policy will amount to illegitimate interventions in the decision-making procedures of a democracy. But this claim cannot withstand criticism. The democratic credentials of the new Israeli government have declined with its intended assault on the rule of law and the judiciary, and its blatant politicization of security forces that will be subjected to Itamar Ben-Gvir’s direct control. This presents not only a moral emergency and call to action. It also — much like the occupation — renders democratic qualms about pressuring Israel laughable.
American Jewish communities and organizations bear a particular moral burden as they have played an extremely influential and harmful role in Israeli politics. By supporting Israeli policy and governments no matter how unjust, by pressuring congressional Democrats not to voice concern about such policies, by advocating that the U.S. supply Israeli governments with military resources to a degree that no other nation receives, American Jews have co-signed Israel’s sense that it can do anything it wants without consequences. American Jews have played an active role in bringing about the situation we are in today, where anything remotely resembling a democracy in Israel is in jeopardy.
It is not acceptable for American Jewry to now, in the face of ominous news of Israel’s new far-right government, descend into inaction and apathy. American Jewry must take responsibility for its past mistakes and for the reality they helped create, and actively lead the struggle to change it. And the way to do this now — perhaps for the first time in the history of Israel — cannot be that of a polite dialogue.
The new government is mobilizing forces against any balance of powers, against any protest, against any opposition. It is entirely uninhibited by democratic or moral niceties. It is not even inhibited by thoughts about Israel’s international image. Internal forces within Israel can no longer be expected to bring about the needed changes on their own. Israelis need your help.
Jewish communities must distance themselves from the current government in any way possible: Stop inviting — and refuse to host — Israeli officials connected to the current government. It cannot just be the most extreme members of the coalition like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich who lose the privilege of American hospitality, but also Minister of Justice Yariv Levin — the main force behind the suggested “legal reform” — and Netanyahu himself. All those who are implicated in the current wholesale attack on Israeli democracy must be unwelcome at American Jewish institutions. The message has to be clear that the current government is beyond the pale.
We also need you to take specific actions against the occupation: Boycott products coming out of the settlements. Refuse to cooperate with settlement municipalities, host sports teams coming out of the settlements or take tours of wineries on occupied land. Support liberal actors within Israel, both in politics, journalism and NGOs.
It is crucial now to support those American politicians who will champion in Congress measures intended to create such pressure on Israel, including, for instance, making aid conditional on ceasing settlement expansion and on reigning in settlers’ violence.
Recent weeks have seen much-needed protest in Israel itself. I hope such efforts will only increase with time. But we cannot succeed without your aggressive help. American Jewish organizations and communities can no longer forget their liberal values when they talk about Israel. The fate of our democracy depends on it.
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