June 26. 2023
I find myself scratching my head about the leadership of the Jewish community that I worked in for decades. Its hypocrisy and lack of morality are just mind-boggling.
Martin Luther King, Jr. described the difficulty for leaders when asked to be leaders. “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
Such a moment faced the American Jewish Community when the current Israeli government was created in the final days of 2022. We saw an Israeli government that no longer felt the need to hide its true ambitions as its predecessors had done. It was ready to realize a long-camouflaged dream of a triumphant Israel, one that did not share the land with a Palestinian state, one that ruled from the “river to the sea” as a Jewish state, one that tolerated those non-Jews as residents who were ready to live as, at best, second class citizens. The fiction of true democracy was no longer necessary for this government. The concept of a “Two State Solution” no longer needed even a mention.
In the words of The Times of Israel written shortly after the election results were final: Here was a government whose “most prominent policy positions…include encouraging Arab citizens of Israel to emigrate; annexing the West Bank without affording Palestinians the right to vote or other civil rights; imposing the death penalty for terrorists; using live fire against Palestinian rioters; immunity from prosecution for IDF soldiers for military actions they carry out; overhauling the legal system, crimping the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation and giving the government the ability to pack the bench with ideological compatriots… to extend [Israeli] sovereignty to all parts of the Land of Israel which were liberated in the Six Day War and arrange the status of the enemies of Israel in the Arab countries surrounding us.’ The next related policy goal is on encouraging the emigration of Arab citizens of Israel.”
But In Israel and in the United States unmasking the blatant bias of Israel was not sufficient to make the American Jewish Community look at Israel/Palestine honestly. For both Israeli and American Jews it was only when the new government unleashed its plans to mold Israel as an overtly religious state.
It was a proposed modification of Israel’s judicial system that brought this conflict between secular and religious Jews, Israelis, and Americans, to a point that voices were raised, which brought out the unprecedented and ongoing protests, clogging the streets of cities across the country. While the slogans spoke of protecting Israeli democracy, it was a democracy that only included Jewish Israelis and ignored the plight of those non-Jews living under Israeli occupation and the continued territorial expansion fostered by this empowered government.
For many American Jews, the threat that Israel’s image as the “only Democracy” in the middle east was now being threatened was enough to motivate widespread support for the Israeli protestors. But as In Israel, even as the cycle of violence flared hotter and Palestinians were being killed and injured in growing numbers, the loudest and most powerful American Jewish spoke only about protecting democracy and turned their eyes again away from the pain and suffering of the “others” living in the same land.
This was a moment when leaders were faced with a challenge. Do they recognize that the Israeli court system and differences between secular and more traditional Jews were only part of the problem needing to be challenged? Would they finally recognize that Israeli and American Jewish voices that saw Israel as an Apartheid state had been the canary in the mine shaft? Would they now see that this is the growing problem of a nation bent on othering an entire people? This was the moment Dr. King had spoken to his nation about 6 decades ago.
And here is where my community’s leadership failed us.
The Jewish Federations of North America, an organization which claims it “proudly represent(s) 146 independent Federations and a network of 300 smaller communities across the continent… “ had to speak out about what was happening in Israel, the had to ‘protest” Israel’s new government and its policies. So it issued a clarion call of protest as it told Israeli leaders that “The Jewish Federations of North America have a deep and abiding love for the State of Israel…Our support for the State of Israel is unconditional and eternal…Whatever the final resolution of these issues, this process will ensure that the views of all stakeholders are fully considered…a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society.”
The American Jewish Committee which proclaims it is “defending democratic values for all…” was bravely proclaiming that the “the last…months have been painful to watch and yet a textbook case of democracy in action. We respect the political leaders, business executives, community activists, cultural figures, and ordinary Israelis who took to the streets, exercising their love of country, and their passion for democracy. As a next step, we encourage all Knesset factions, coalition, and opposition alike, to … build a consensus that includes the broad support of Israeli civil society.”
And the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) which says it speaks for “2.7 million pro-Israel Americans from every congressional district…” was able to tweet its opposition to this Israeli government, “for many weeks, Israelis have engaged in a vigorous debate reflective of the Jewish state’s robust democracy. Israel’s diverse citizenship is showcasing its passionate engagement in the democratic process to determine the policies that will guide their country.”
Soft words, couched in the language of ongoing support are all that these organizations could muster. Not one word about the future of the Palestinian people and the brutality of the vision of Israel’s government.
Last week the level of cowardice that these words reflected did not tell the true story.
As the above words were being published and mailed out to donors, supporters, and the press, the leaders of AIPAC and JFNA met with Bezalel Smotrich who holds a ministerial position in the current Israeli government and whose party provided the critical votes to form this government. Alon Pinkas writing in Haaretz described Smotrich as “ the racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, Jewish supremacist and patently anti-democracy finance minister of Israel…Smotrich was in the past arrested by Israel’s Shin Bet security service on suspicion of planning to blow up cars in Tel Aviv. This is a man who claimed that the Rabin assassination was a conspiracy by the Shin Bet, declared that Israel should be a halakhically governed theocracy (referring to Jewish religious law), called Jerusalem’s Pride Parade “a parade of beasts” and said that his wife would refuse to give birth in a maternity ward if an Arab mother was next to her. After a pogrom by Jewish settlers in the Palestinian village of Hawara in February, Smotrich – a close ally of Netanyahu – commented that the village “should have been wiped out.”
Morality would dictate these leaders of American Jewry would not sit down with such a man. Morality and conscience would say that if they did, they would do it publicly and tell the world why they were doing so. But they bowed to the politics of the moment, wishing to not offend those angry with Israel’s government and those who believe Israel is always right. So, they sat with a bigot and remained mute. Fealty to the state of Israel, whatever that represents and with whom represents it, was stronger than a moral position. So, as they were expressing their “protests” Erik Fingerhut, JFNA CEO, and William Daroff, AIPAC CEO, sat with Minister Smotrich because they just could not walk away and make their words of protest mean something. They could not walk away and risk being attacked as anti-Israel or even as antisemitic.
In responding to Pinkas, Daroff said: “The meeting was private, low-key, and not about photo ops but about having a conversation. … I think it’s important for the American-Jewish leadership to ensure that the Israeli political leadership understands the key issues for American Jewry and understands more fully how the American-Jewish community operates, and that our views are important issues of common concern. But they remained polite and did not take this “opportunity” to tell him directly that he is a fascist and a bigot and is despised by much of the American Jewish community.
The American Jewish Committee recently held its World Forum in Israel. It, after being pushed to meet with leaders of the “pro-democracy demonstrators” who were trying to protect the civil society that AJC said it valued they were only willing to do the politically expedient thing and hold a private meeting that will “not be open to the entire forum, but rather, to a select group of representatives of the Jewish advocacy organization.”
Israeli protestors also asked the AJC to deny the podium to another ultra-nationalist minister of the current government, Amichai Chikli. These protestors had noted that Chikli had described “J Street, a liberal Zionist advocacy group, as a “hostile organization,” citing funding it received from George Soros, whom he denounced as “one of the greatest haters of Israel in our times”. In a letter sent to the AJC leadership shortly thereafter, more than a dozen grassroots organizations active in the protest movement requested that the invitation to Chikli be withdrawn, noting that “his racist and homophobic views,” along with his offensive remarks to the U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, “should make him a persona non grata in every Jewish community that cherishes ties between Israel and the USA. The letter noted that Chikli had accused Reform Jews of “anti-Zionism,” had called the Tel Aviv pride parade a “disgraceful vulgarity,” had referred to Arab members of the Knesset as “terror supporters,” and had told Nides to “mind your own business…Is this really the man and the message that you want to honor and endorse? We strongly think, and genuinely hope, not.”
Another moment when Jewish leaders were asked to act with a moral conscience and another moment when they failed their community.
“Asked for the organization’s response to these calls, an AJC spokesman issued the following statement to Haaretz: “Minister Chikli is the Diaspora Affairs Minister. AJC Global Forum hosting 1,500 delegates from more than 60 nations. Mr. Chikli will offer his thoughts to us, and we will emphasize the necessity of valuing the inclusion and diversity of the Jewish people from around the world, from every denomination, and including those who disagree with him.”
These are the Israeli leaders, those who are steering their nation along a path of increased violence and apartheid that the leaders of organizations that claim to speak for all jwish Americans bow down to.
The real leaders of my community, those that are learning from the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr’s, are the leaders of organizations like If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace who are willing to act on their conscience even when it is politically unwise. They are willing to see the truth and speak out even in the face of being ostracized and vilified as antisemites. To them honor is due.