Opinion | Israel, We’ve Got to Talk

Time to put some conditions on our tortured relationship
By | Apr 04, 2023
Opinion, Spring Issue 2023

In Hebrew, “Ahavat Yisrael” means “love of one’s fellow Jews.” But for many of the millions of Jews who define their Judaism in a nationalist as well as, or rather than, a religious framework, Ahavat Yisrael has come to mean love of the Jewish state.

For the past 75 years, the relationship between the average Jewish American and the State of Israel has flourished in large part because of a love pact of our own making: In return for helping us feel safe, strong and proud, we agreed to give Israel unconditional love. This tacit covenant has impelled us to do amazing things: defend every Israeli government regardless of party, policies or politics; lobby our legislators to give Israel advanced weapons and vast amounts of foreign aid; raise huge sums of money for its military, cultural and social institutions; and vigorously promote its entrepreneurship, ingenuity, technology and tourism.

All this time, our love of Israel has remained steadfast regardless of whether it is returned in kind, or in kindness. We’ve kept up our end of the pact, even when some Israeli leaders have humiliated our leaders (think Netanyahu making an end run around Obama to address Congress).

The romance kept its youthful blush, even after some Israeli rabbis blithely dissed some of our rabbis, delegitimizing the conversions of Reform, Conservative and several modern Orthodox religious courts, ridiculing our denominational Judaism and restricting our prayer practices at the Western Wall, as if the ancient site belongs to the Orthodox rabbinate, not to the Jewish people.

So many American Jews keep saying “I love Israel,” even when the object of our love violates international law, as it does daily by encouraging settlement creep and permitting de facto annexation in the West Bank. Or when it routinely violates the human rights and dignity of millions of Palestinians who live under constant scrutiny by the IDF and Israeli police and are subject to military, not civilian, law. My own eyes have seen the results of housing demolitions, evictions, preventive detention, confiscation of property, arrests of small children, gratuitous insults and casual dehumanization of Palestinians at checkpoints.

We’re discovering that love has its limits.

Most surprising to me, the love pact held firm even when the Knesset passed the 2018 Nation-State Law, which expressly denied equal rights to its Arab citizens and other minorities and flagrantly privileged Jews. Had our government taken equivalent discriminatory steps against U.S. minority groups, doubtless most American Jews would have catapulted themselves and their communal organizations into action. But when festering blemishes broke out on the face of “the only democracy in the Middle East,” our top spokespersons trotted out the concealer. Shoulder to shoulder with conservative evangelicals, most Jews continued to press their hyperbolic claim that Israel “shares America’s values.”

But at long last, we’re discovering that love has its limits. Since Bibi’s coalition of fascist, racist, ultranationalist,
Orthodox-dominated far-right ministers assumed power, not only have hundreds of thousands of Israelis taken to the streets, but a number of U.S. machers— prominent mainstream Jews—have broken ranks and put their distress on the record in no uncertain terms.

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he felt morally obligated to criticize Israel’s elected rulers “for the first time in my life.” The revered Abe Foxman told The Jerusalem Post, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

In a video that went viral, Sharon Brous, the charismatic rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, delivered a passionate sermon on the urgency and the agony of not loving what Israel has become.

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Manhattan’s Ansche Chesed revealed that he and his congregation would no longer recite the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State and Government of Israel,” which has been said on Shabbat and holidays in Conservative synagogues since the founding of the state.

Many ordinary Jews, too, have been struggling with pangs of conscience. Since September, I’ve given more than 60 talks to Jewish groups all over the country during which I heard Jews whisper that, for the first time in their lives, they’re ashamed of Israel. For some, it’s a shanda fur die goyim (an embarrassing act by Jews witnessed by non-Jews) that the Jewish state is being compared to Hungary, Belarus and the Philippines and its prime minister likened to their authoritarian leaders. Others admit they were embarrassed as Jews when settlers were filmed torching Palestinian villages, that the scenes awakened images seared into their memories of a time when we Jews were the victims of violent mobs. People said they couldn’t believe the Israel they love could possibly come to this.

Also freshly motivated, a majority of the 27 Jewish members of the House of Representatives, including Jerrold Nadler, Brad Schneider, Jan Schakowsky and Debbie Wasserman Schultz—all well-known “lovers of Israel”—signed a highly unusual letter to Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and opposition leader Yair Lapid, registering “profound concern about proposed changes to Israel’s governing institutions and legal system that we fear could undermine Israeli democracy and the civil rights and religious freedoms it protects.”

Scattered push came to unified shove on March 12 when representatives of the center-right Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (along with many progressive Jewish groups and the U.S. State Department) actually boycotted Israel Bonds’ Washington, DC fundraiser. This unprecedented act was precipitated by the group’s extending a speaking invitation to Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a rabble-rousing hatemonger who has identified himself as a “fascist homophobe,” called gay pride parades “worse than bestiality” and reacted to the settlers’ pogrom in an Arab village by saying the entire town “needs to be wiped out” (a war crime in any language).

I’m grateful to those notables who are using their platforms, pulpits and personal prestige to come to the defense of Israeli democracy. Yet the full benefits of the democracy they want to save have, in fact, only been enjoyed by Jews. So I also can’t help feeling ashamed that it took a threat to dismantle Jewish rights and Jewish freedoms to burst the balloon of romantic delusion.

It shouldn’t have taken a settler pogrom, or a clear and present threat to freedoms previously taken for granted by Jews, to rile up our leaders.

Love of Israel must be conditional. We can’t support, reward or enable the Jewish state to do whatever it chooses, without taking some responsibility when its choice is to trample on the rights and freedoms of other human beings. Here’s what conditional love looks like:

• We don’t quit lobbying for the Jewish state. We lobby for Israel and Israelis, not their current government, which seems hell-bent on dismantling the founding freedoms granted to its people in its own majestic Declaration of Independence.

• We don’t stop giving money. We stop giving undirected money to just any “pro-Israel” organization. We target our funds to entities working to secure an array of democratic institutions in Israel (free speech, press, minority rights and an independent judiciary).

• We don’t stop visiting Israel. We make sure our tour itineraries expose us to the whole truth about the land we love, not just its tech miracles and blooming deserts.

You’ve heard the expression “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” If someone we love is steering their life off a cliff, we try to stop them, redirect them, talk sense into them. It doesn’t mean we take away the car, it means we take away the car keys. We don’t want Israel to cease to exist. We just want its government to stop eroding the very foundations of its existence.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s most recent book is Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion | Israel, We’ve Got to Talk

  1. Barbara (Warshawsky) Bloomberg says:

    Hi Letty,
    I could not put your book down. So many thoughts of my dysfunctional family came to light as I read it. It was definitely a unique depiction of a Jewish family with all it’s characters and their flaws. How courageous of you to write it. And I know it was with love.

    On another note, I thought you would get a kick out of knowing I grew up in Roosevelt, N.J. and knew your husband Burt. Although he was a few years older than me, I hung around with the Martin boys, Barbara Grossman, Joan Goldstein, Ruthie Bauman, and Alfred Friedman. I remember Burt’s mom
    Esther, but more vividly, the Shahns. Susie Shahn was one of my best friends and we hung out at Ben’s studio. Oh, if I only knew then what I know now. I revered him and have an etching of him by Stephan Martin. I remember Burt and Roosevelt with very, very fond memories. I love your work.

    I am now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico and I’m a glass artist.

  2. David Wasser says:

    Thanks for articulating the painful inner turmoil that many of us are experiencing regarding our relationship to Israel. It was helpful to read your suggestions for how to maintain that relationship while exercising our obligation to speak out about current and past injustices.

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