With Israel’s Democracy In Danger, We Must Not Silence Critics

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As a new far-right government takes power in Israel, a debate among Jewish Americans has erupted about what it means to be “pro-Israel.” This is not new. Even before the First Zionist Congress convened over 120 years ago, there were multiple competing visions of what a renewed Jewish homeland could and should be.

Debate, of course, is deeply Jewish. Jewish holy texts celebrate diverse perspectives and productive disagreement. However, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort within the American Jewish community to define “pro-Israel” in the narrowest possible terms, casting as inherently “anti-Israel” individuals and organizations like J Street that publicly criticize Israeli policies and Israeli leaders, thereby silencing and even ostracizing legitimate critics.

In light of our people’s history of persecution, and Israel’s role as a place of refuge and security for a people perpetually threatened, many supporters of Israel fear that public criticism gives ammunition to those who seek Israel’s destruction, especially at a moment of rising worldwide antisemitism.

But casting liberal Jewish critics of Israeli policies as “anti-Israel” is not only contrary to Jewish values but also contrary to Israel’s own best interests. Those who circle the wagons in times like these by denying the legitimacy of criticism and critics often seem to fail to consider that Israel’s leaders, and the people that elect them, are, like all of us, fallible; and those imperfect leaders can act in ways that, even with the best of intentions, jeopardize the survival of the state.

For example, Israel’s new government has advocated for policies that undermine its independent judiciary and that threaten the equal rights of women, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jewish citizens and other minority groups. These policies alarm many liberal Jews, especially in the Diaspora, not only because they are antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and our understanding of Jewish values, but also because they raise serious concerns about how Israel as we know it can survive if ceases to be a true democracy.

Similarly, the new government has pledged to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Many Israeli military and security experts have repeatedly warned that the settlement enterprise threatens Israel’s long-term security and survival as a Jewish democracy. Many of us criticize policies like these as de facto annexation of the territories Israel captured in 1967. But we do so not because we seek to undermine Israel’s security, and certainly not because we are “anti-Israel.” To the contrary: because we love Israel, we fear policies like these undermine Israel’s founding values and even threaten its survival.

For as long as I can remember, Israel has been an inseparable part of my Jewish identity. I loved it before I made my first pilgrimage as a teenager, when I first kissed the ground of the tarmac at the old Ben-Gurion airport. I spent some of the best and most formative years of my life in Israel. I first met and fell in love with the woman who became my wife while we were living in Jerusalem. Beloved family members and some of my most cherished friends call Israel home. As a Jew, I believe Israel is essential, and I shudder to envision a world without a Jewish state. As a rabbi, there is little I love more than helping Jews deepen their relationships with the land, people and state of Israel.

Watching Israel being led in a direction that I believe is both antithetical to Jewish values and dangerous to its long-term survival has propelled my involvement in organizations like J Street, which expresses its loving commitment to Israel by opposing actions that it sees as harmful and advancing policies that it believes to be beneficial. I am proud to partner with others who believe that uncritical support can cause harm, and that loyalty can sometimes require opposition.

I do not believe, however, that those who disagree with me are “anti-Israel.” Any of us can be wrong, and that’s exactly the point. We can interpret the same facts differently without assuming the other is approaching the issue in bad faith or with malicious intent.

Throughout history, the Jewish people has been enriched by a culture of impassioned but respectful debate. In the coming year, I pray that we recognize more than one way to express our love for Israel and more than one vision for what Israel ought to be. The global Jewish community and state of Israel are strongest when we disagree without questioning one another’s loyalties.

This article was originally published in the Washington Jewish Week, https://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/why-im-not-sure-im-right/?fbclid=IwAR1x7V2keqzO6TPk_Ms6X1ImB9xH8fSA6nXukJ04T9EIWkAvjAFwZWf5L58.

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