When the New Israel Fund sent an action alert to protest gender-segregated buses in Israel, we got an enthusiastic response.
When we and the human rights groups we fund were attacked in Israel, viciously and dishonestly, we asked for signatures to a petition to Prime Minister Netanyahu in support of democratic dissent, and we got a very enthusiastic response.
But the immediate reaction we got to a brief, carefully-balanced letter we sent about the…well, let’s call it the disastrous incident of the Gaza flotilla… now that was a response.
"I think that Daniel’s letter is the best statement that I’ve read about the flotilla."
"Why should the Israeli government conduct an inquiry when its own continuing policies of unmitigated aggression and human rights abuses caused the attack and deaths in the first place?"
"Were you not ‘shocked and dismayed’ by the deliberate and provocative effort by anti-Israel activists – and ships sponsored by a recognized terrorist organization – to defy a legitimate naval blockade, despite Israel’s offer to transfer the aid directly to Gaza?"
"Living up to our ideals is the best answer to these unfortunate events. Thank you for keeping up the hope for a better future through dialogue. The extremes thrive only on silence."
"Daniel: You are out of your mind."
Let me make one thing clear from the outset. We are neither foreign policy nor military specialists, nor are we a "peace group." Our letter was written to express our fundamental concern for Israel. We are a proudly progressive organization that has built and supported Israeli civil society — the human rights, social justice and religious pluralism organizations that are so much of the reason Israel considers itself a vibrant democracy. As the leading supporter of cutting-edge causes that advance Israeli democracy, we are used to controversy and to diverse views within our own big tent, both in the U.S. and in Israel.
But as accustomed as we are to argument, the nerve touched by the flotilla letter seems to us to be raw, and frightening, and possibly predictive of some very hard times ahead for American Jews who love and are connected to Israel.
We do empathize with the passions aroused by the flotilla action and the larger issues at stake here. Whether they called the flotilla participants armed militants or peaceful activists, our respondents care about Israel. Whether our respondents faulted the IDF or Turkey, the Netanyahu government or Hamas, defended Israel’s action to the hilt or attacked it vociferously, our supporters reflect a connection to Israel that was once assumed to be one of the strongest ties binding the American Jewish community together.
But those ties are fraying. More and more, we who work day in and out for Israel, whether from the left or right, know that every program we fund, every project we sponsor, is a potential target for ideological attack. The community events that should reflect the diverse opinions of American Jews about Israel too frequently deteriorate into controversy about this film or that speaker — the argument being that those with whom one disagrees do not deserve the attention of a thoughtful audience. Some American Jewish organizations apparently wait for their talking points from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, while others jump to criminalize Israel’s actions in utter isolation from the existential threats it has endured since its founding.
If we as a community leap to defend every action and policy of the Israeli government, we are outsourcing our consciences, our values and our own responsibility. If we likewise forget that Israelis live next door to enemies who have sworn to eradicate them, we are transposing our own American comfort and security to a place that knows neither. And if we shrug our shoulders at Israel’s lost ideals, silently thank our own American forbearers for settling here rather than there, and give up, we have abandoned what must remain the fulfillment of the collective dream of the Jewish people.
Having worked for Jewish organizations my entire career, I am alarmed and saddened. Not just by the outcome of the Gaza flotilla, but by the black-and-white character of too much of the communal response. A people who created the Talmud should not be so deaf to nuance, to balance, to contextualizing a rational argument. A people who knew suffering for millennia should not be indifferent to the suffering of others, and a people who were defenseless for almost 2000 years should not be dismissive of the security concerns of its homeland.
Six boats in the Mediterranean are sailing through the holes in the fabric of the Jewish community. We need to be careful to ensure that our community’s conversation is open, honest and respectful of criticism and self-examination. We can and will disagree about what happened last week and about what it means for Israeli policy and Israel itself.
But we must do so with some sense of connection and mutual care, for each other and for Israel.
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.
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