Although not a citizen — and therefore not a voter in your Sept. 17 election — the following is a message that, hopefully, you’ll consider when casting your ballot. There are at least two reasons why I believe you should care about what American Jews think:
First, from its inception, Israel defined a relationship with world Jewry as central to its core identity. That’s why Israel’s Law of Return grants all Jews the right to obtain automatic citizenship. And that’s why the Knesset in July 2018 passed a basic law declaring Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people — the Jewish people, not merely its citizens. I believe we Jews, whether living in Israel or outside of the country, are entitled to discuss our respective challenges openly and honestly, and to be taken seriously.
Second, Israel is strong, with an extraordinarily capable army. Yet, over the decades, bipartisan U.S. support has been an essential component of Israel’s national security. And I believe American-Jewish advocacy has made a significant impact in assuring the constancy of U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support.
In its July 2018 report, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University expressed concern about the potential impact of diminished American-Jewish support. This could contribute, the report observed, to a reduction of security assistance to Israel and/or withholding the U.S. veto in the United Nations (UN), which has shielded Israel from many anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council.
In explaining the growing alienation of American Jews from Israel, especially among the young generation, the INSS report emphasizes the negative impact of the inequality between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel. It cites damage caused by the National Conversion Law, which gives the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over religious conversions in Israel, and the freeze placed on the Western Wall egalitarian prayer plan. Non-Orthodox American Jews are growing increasingly weary of their second-class status in the Jewish state.
The Palestinian issue seems to be getting very little play in the Israeli election campaign. But Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people for more than half a century is having a deleterious effect on the Israel-U.S. relationship. For American Jews, support for Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people is not merely a slogan. It is a core value — the democratic part of the equation no less important than the Jewish part. That is why virtually all major Jewish organizations endorse the “two states for two peoples” formula — the only formula many American Jews believe can preserve Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic character.
Most of us appreciate how difficult it has been to advance the peace process with a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership either unable or unwilling to compromise. And in the face of unrelenting violence from Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, we support all measures necessary to protect the safety of Israel’s citizens.
But the current government’s continued building of Jewish homes in the heart of the West Bank and recent talk about possibly annexing settlements suggest that the commitment to a future two-state outcome may be off the table.
A comprehensive agreement isn’t achievable anytime soon. But Commanders for Israel’s Security, a movement founded in 2014 by former senior Israeli security officials, has identified numerous interim measures Israel can take that build toward two states — measures that don’t jeopardize, and may even enhance, Israel’s security. In my opinion, if Israel pursues policies that lead to permanent domination over millions of Palestinians, it would devastate Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jews.
As a small minority in our country, we American Jews pay close attention to how Israel treats its non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian Arab, minority. In recent years, Israel has made impressive strides toward equalizing resources and services. Yet, there is concern about legislation, such as the nation-state law, and policies that project second-class status onto Israel’s Arab citizens. American Jews have a vision of an Israel that preserves its status as nation-state of the Jewish people, but also extends itself to make all citizens feel equal and welcome.
Then, there is the Trump factor. I’m aware that there is a widespread perception on your end that President Trump is good for Israel. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights; and withdrew from an Iran nuclear agreement unpopular in Israel. We can debate whether those steps were good for Israel. What I don’t think is debatable is that our president seems to be doing everything in his power to eviscerate bipartisan U.S. support for Israel.
He has baselessly attempted to paint the Democratic Party, the party to which a large majority of American Jews belong, as not only anti-Israel but also anti-Semitic. Many American-Jewish leaders and scholars, including experts such as Deborah Lipstadt, regard Trump as an enabler of anti-Semitism, while our community has been under unprecedented violent assault from white supremacists. It cannot help our relationship when Israel’s current leaders fawn over Trump and appear ready to do his every bidding, including by inexcusably preventing the visit to Israel of two Democratic members of U.S. Congress. Remember, Trump will not be president forever. In fact, you may be faced with a Democratic administration in early 2021.
Only one generation removed from the Holocaust, my relationship with and love for Israel — forged during the period of the epic Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars and the years spent living in Jerusalem — is permanent. I truly feel blessed to live in a time when after two millennia, sovereignty has been restored to our much-persecuted Jewish people. Nothing can dissuade me from engaging with like-minded partners to advance religious pluralism in Israel, preserve the viability of a two-state outcome, build a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens, and maintain robust bipartisan U.S. backing of a secure and democratic Israel. But I worry that others, whose commitment does not run as deep as mine, will choose to walk away rather than stand up and fight for our values. And along with them will go the kind of strong and consistent American-Jewish support Israel has long maintained.
Martin Raffel, the former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is a columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News.