If a member of your family were in crisis, would you abandon them? Even if the crisis were partly self-inflicted, of course you would stand by them.
In a metaphorical way, this is the issue facing Diaspora Jews in considering Israel right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the direction of the new government, it is undeniable that Israel is in a crisis. Each weekend, for several weeks, between 100,000 and 300,000 people have marched in the streets in opposition to a range of government policies, particularly proposed judicial “reforms” that many critics view as a threat to the fundamental democratic character of the country.
Watching from afar, these events are discouraging and worrying – and these emotions mingle with what might already be a degree of ambivalence, disappointment and many other sentiments. It is not always easy to be a supporter of Israel overseas. We have struggled in the face of decades of condemnation, some legitimate, some outlandish exaggerations. It would be easier, for some of us, to walk away.
Israelis do not have the luxury of walking away. And if one looks at Israel today and says, “That does not reflect my Judaism, my politics, my values,” remember: it does not reflect the Judaism, politics or values of most Israelis either.
The Israeli government we see today is the result of a tail wagging the dog, a reality facilitated by coalition politics and the desperation of Binyamin Netanyahu to regain power at almost any cost.
In many instances, people who voted based on concerns about national security find themselves appalled at policies around women’s equality, LGBTQ+ rights, the place of minorities in the country, the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and, of course, the overriding threats perceived in the attempts to meddle with the infrastructure of the Israeli judiciary – the wellspring from which much of Israel’s liberal character has come.
Most Israelis did not knowingly vote for leaders who would see the settler violence against Palestinians in the village of Huwara and endorse it, vindicate the perpetrators and incite further, even more destructive and possibly murderous violence. This latter example – of politicians (or anyone else, for that matter) openly celebrating and inciting racist violence – should disgust everyone, no matter their political stripe.
Overseas organizations that are connected with Israel – not least the Jewish Federations of North America – have spoken out officially in ways that are unprecedented in the history of Israel-Diaspora relations. Some of these statements have been comparatively mild in the minds of many observers, who view this as genuinely a time for full-throated disapproval. The fact that they are speaking out at all, however, is significant.
One of the side effects of all this is the debunking of the popular accusations that the tendency to keep negative comments within the family reflects “uncritical support for Israel.” This idea, that Zionism is a form of congenital disorder unrooted in reason, has never been true but it is now discredited. For what that’s worth.
Relatedly, individuals and groups who for years have been slandering Israel with hyperbole are now learning that they have exhausted the arsenal of vocabulary when actual events call for some strong language.
There is some reason for optimism. Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, who has been cast by events into a role unlike the relatively ceremonial function that the office usually carries, said this week that a compromise may be in the offing on the contentious judicial reforms. Moreover, the resignation from cabinet last week of Avi Maoz, a far-right extremist, appears to be evidence that the government is wearying of fighting a multiple-front war. It is believed that Maoz realized the government wasn’t going to impose his racist, misogynistic and homophobic policies and so took his marbles home. There are reports of more turmoil in the ranks, which could drag the government and the country back toward a little sanity.
On the one hand, this should not invite a slackening of the pressure. There is a movement afoot among Diaspora Jews (and others) to discourage world leaders from meeting with extremist members of the Israeli government. Whether or not that will have much effect on anything, it is a valuable expression of revulsion for people who, like Bezalel Smotrich, incited (and then walked back) his call to “wipe out” the Palestinian village where Jewish settlers recently attacked innocent civilians.
On the other hand, anyone who is considering walking away from Israel, of abandoning the emotional energies of this fight, should consider who it is they would be abandoning in the process. A government is fleeting – although the lasting damage a single government can do is significant. But, Israel is the embodiment of the Jewish people’s national self-determination. To walk away from that is to walk away from more than bad government policy. It is to walk away from history. To walk away from everything that one’s ancestors hoped for, prayed for and built.
More importantly, it is to abandon to their own devices the very people in Israel with whom we probably most closely agree, who are struggling nobly to preserve the vision of Israel that many or most of us believe to be an ideal.
When a family member is in crisis, we do not abandon them. We engage. We help. We confront and intervene, if necessary. We do not walk away. In fact, this is precisely the moment when we dig deepest into our resources and do everything we can to make right what is wrong.