On Feb. 2, four prominent American Jewish intellectuals, all long-standing liberal Zionists, published a statement in The Washington Post expressing the anguish felt by many American Jews over the policies of the new Israeli government.
Paul Berman, Martin Peretz, Michael Walzer and Leon Wieseltier made it clear in their cri de coeur that “We are American liberals and liberal Zionists who have always supported Israel and have always regarded American support for Israel as a point of patriotic pride.”
“We have seen in Israel an essential refuge for oppressed and persecuted Jews” as well as “an admirable project, still in the works, for a democratic and liberal society,” they wrote.
The new Israeli government, they asserted, “has put those democratic, tolerant and rational principles under greater pressure than Israel has seen before.”
They pointed to the government’s proposed judicial reforms and the possible acceleration of the settlement project in Judea and Samaria. They further asserted that the new government “threatens Jewish solidarity more broadly, given that most Diaspora Jews adhere to rival currents of Judaism or to secular and unaffiliated currents that are disparaged or condemned by the government’s theocrats.”
American support for Israel should continue, they said, but “Israel also needs and deserves maximum political support for the Israeli protesters in the streets. It is the anti-Netanyahu protesters, and not the Israeli government, who represent the hope for the decent and liberal Jewish state that the world needs.”
“We urge Israel’s truest friends to adopt this kind of double, but not contradictory, support: Yes to the Israeli defense system and yes to the protesters,” they concluded.
I do not agree with every word of this missive, but I believe the authors’ grief and concern are genuine, and widely shared by liberal Zionists in the U.S. Indeed, certain liberal American Zionists have told me personally that their efforts on Israel’s behalf have become a great deal more difficult because of the new government.
But I also know that Berman, Peretz, Walzer and Wieseltier’s statement will face an inevitable reply: “You don’t live in Israel. You don’t have skin in the game. Therefore, you should not tell Israelis what to do about their own domestic affairs. Move to Israel or mind your own business.”
Such a response is not impossible to understand. Israelis often see American Jews as painfully naïve about the realities of the Middle East and don’t want to hear the remonstrations of people who live an ocean away and are not called upon to fight for their survival. These Israelis are not entirely wrong.
Nonetheless, I do not share this attitude. In fact, American Jews very much have “skin in the game” and thus the right to take a stand—within the boundaries of respect and reason—on Israeli politics.
Indeed, American Jews’ stake in the Zionist project is, unfortunately, clearer now than it has ever been. In the face of rising antisemitism in the U.S., American Jews may soon be forced to contemplate the possibility that, at some point, Israel may prove to be an “essential refuge” for them as well. We should pray that they never have to face such desperation, but the fact remains that they may have to come here someday, and thus they have a legitimate interest in what kind of society we become.
Zionists have been concerned with this issue since the dawn of the movement. For example, Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism, advocated a socialist Jewish state because he believed the relatively poor Jewish masses would not undertake the arduous task of aliyah unless they believed they were coming to a more just society than the one they had left.
Moreover, liberal Zionists are hardly alone in their concerns about the nature of Israeli society. American Jews who support the current government also want an Israel that reflects their most cherished values. They want an Israel that is more right-wing and religious, and have no problem with advocating for it—nor should they. But this means Diaspora Jews who want a more secular and liberal Israel have a right to advocate for it as well.
It is my hope that this crisis may prove to be an opportunity, because the kind of “double support” that Berman, Peretz, Walzer and Wieseltier advocate is not simply adversarial. It is also a “way in” for American Jews who have previously regarded Israel from a certain distance. Concern, after all, is the opposite of alienation. The anguish felt by American liberal Zionists is intimate and emotional. It expresses a sense of solidarity with their Israeli brethren, if only in the context of struggle. “Double support,” we should remember, is still support.
The great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once remarked of American Jews, “They can give up on us, but we cannot give up on them.” I believe this goes both ways. Some Israelis may give up on American Jews, but American Jews cannot give up on us. The stakes are simply too high. With antisemitism skyrocketing, American Jews need Israel now more than ever. That they seek to engage with Israel and its ongoing controversies means that they have not given up on us. This is not only legitimate, it is essential.