During a recent conversation about the circumstances, future and significance of Israel for liberally minded North American Jews, the 20-something scion of a prestigious American Jewish family, with long Jewish and Zionist credentials, made a clearly painful confession; “To tell you the truth, Israel disgusts me.”
While I am well practiced in arguing with many kinds of “Israel skeptics,” the harshness of this outburst, and coming from this particular person, left a deep impression. I worried about this person’s relationship with Israel and with Judaism, and I worried that such negativity and even outright hostility towards Israel is not uncommon today among younger Jews.
How did such a troubling rift develop, and how can we go about fixing it, for the sake of all concerned?
The obvious explanation is, of course, that many of the things that have happened and are now happening in Israel are deeply disturbing by pretty much every decent-minded Jewish and liberal-democratic criterion. Most recently we have seen a concerted assault on Israel’s democracy by many elected leaders, often with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support. This attack has featured proud contempt for the basic rights and feelings of all “others” and the cynical deployment of democratic mechanisms — a parliamentary majority — to undermine fundamental democratic and basic Jewish values.
But closer to home, when sensible and nuanced liberal American Jews have rightly been appalled by actions here, these same Jews invariably stop short of finding “America disgusting.” They rather find specific eras, policies, trends, movements or individuals to be “disgusting.”
This profound inconsistency is related to a broadly held tendency to relate to Israel’s establishment, history and the uniquely complex realities it now faces, in entirely unrealistic ways. While Israel’s many international detractors and outright enemies have always viewed all aspects of Israeli history and society as unreasonably black, many friends and Jews around the world have too often viewed Israel through an entirely unrealistic rose-tinted lens.
One result of this long-standing delusion for liberally minded Jews around the world — and also for many liberally inclined Jewish-Israelis — is a profound sense of mourning for something that never existed. The result is disgust and disengagement at critical juncture of both danger and opportunity, exactly when we so desperately need hope and principled engagement.
The reality is that from its bloody birth, Israel has struggled with every kind of obstacle imaginable as related to humanistic Jewish and democratic traditions.
Rather than teaching, learning and mourning an idyllic past of social justice that never did or could exist, the current meta-struggle for Israel’s Jewish and democratic soul can also be seen as a necessary step forward. Truthfully, after decades of avoidance, the many diverse and previously excluded groups in Israeli society are now staking their claim; to judge, work, marry, pray, participate and live — as equals.
Seen in this light, Israel’s journey and current democratic anguish can be better understood and even compared to America’s epic and inevitably unfinished journey towards greater inclusion and opportunities for all.
Indeed, recent public-opinion polling conducted for Kulanana, a new collaboration of NGO, businesses, governments and philanthropies committed to making Israel fairer for all its citizens, paints a far more nuanced and positive picture about what Israeli citizens of all backgrounds actually want.
Despite the very troubling state of inter-group attitudes and relations that our research revealed, our research also identified substantial grounds for hope and significant potential for change:
For example, even in the current atmosphere of extreme tension and suspicion, Israelis of all groups condemn discrimination on a number of different levels, including on a moral and existential level: between 65 and 80 percent of all sectors agree with arguments that discrimination is immoral, damaging and dangerous. The principle of fairness towards all citizens by all citizens, regardless of identity, is accepted by broad majorities of Israelis — of all backgrounds.
Both Jewish and Arab citizens are aware that guarantees to equal rights as stated in Israel’s declaration of Independence are far from the current reality. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that majorities express dissatisfaction with the direction in which Israeli society is currently headed: over 60 percent among Jewish and Arab respondents said so, while less than 30 percent said things are going in the “right” direction.
Israelis under 30, while disturbingly less accepting of “others” than their elders, display greater curiosity than adults towards “other” citizens. This curiosity can be leveraged for the strategic design of a campaign to improve inter-group attitudes.
In addition to our public opinion research, the experience we have gathered in creating an initial coalition of 20 NGO partners representing the full diversity of Israeli society has demonstrated a strong interest among civil society organizations in working together to serve consensual society-building goals.
So now, faced with unprecedented dangers to and opportunities for moving toward our ideal Israel, it is essential to educate, engage and catalyze the energies of all those who can help Israel press forward on its epic journey. This must include creative, young liberally inclined Jews around the world whose values, skills and voices are now needed more than ever.
Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim-The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, and founder of Kulan