Last month’s decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was an historic day for U.S.-Israel relations. The announcement was a fulfillment not only of a campaign promise, not only of a decades-old legislative commitment, but an affirmation of far deeper consequence of Israel by its staunchest and strongest ally. It was a decision about which even some of the president’s most vocal critics were forced to concede that even a broken clock is right twice a day.
And yet, for a variety of reasons, the response from the progressive American-Jewish community ranged from a deafening silence to outright criticism. Some questioned the decision on the grounds that it undercut America’s role as an evenhanded peace-broker, but for many in the progressive community, the lukewarm reaction reflected a pent-up animosity and cynicism against the president. The style and substance of Trump’s first year in office has been so antithetical to the Torah of liberal American Jews, so bruising to the progressive Jewish community, that even when an unabashedly pro-Israel decision is made, they simply could not bring themselves to embrace and endorse it.
The irony of the tepid response should not be lost on any of us.
The irony of the tepid response should not be lost on any of us. For eight years, American Jews openly questioned whether President Obama, despite his repeated claims to the contrary, truly had Israel’s back. And now the Trump administration declares Jerusalem Israel’s capital, calls out the Palestinians on supporting terrorism, takes the UN to task for its anti-Israel rhetoric and policies, visits Israel, and we can’t even bring ourselves to utter a simple “todah rabah”!? No wonder the heads of the progressive movements weren’t invited to the White House Chanukah party.
But before we write off progressive American Jewry as a bunch of ingrates, we would do well to widen our lens and see the bigger picture. Because while progressive Jews may indeed need to engage in self-reflection on their lackluster response to the Jerusalem decision, what they do understand is that the decision did not happen in a vacuum. The Jerusalem announcement occurred in the context of a series of decisions that by all accounts do not bode well for the future of a two-state solution. The recent endorsement of Netanyahu’s Likud Party to annex the West Bank, the passing of a Knesset amendment requiring a supermajority to give up Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, the creeping legalization of illegal settlements and the creation of legislation seeking to blur the line between Israel and the West Bank. Each one of these gestures, all the more so when taken together, seemingly foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution.
To be clear, the persistent failures of the Palestinians towards the present state of affairs should not be whitewashed. It is historically, intellectually and morally indefensible to lay the blame on the frozen peace process solely at the feet of the Netanyahu government. That said, what American Jewry intuits and fears is that if there is no two-state solution, if there is a one-state solution of Israeli rule with 2.7 million (and growing) politically disenfranchised Palestinians, then the Jewish and democratic Israel that we know, love and defend will have ceased to exist. Such an outcome would be devastating for Israel, devastating for American Jewry and a devastating rupture for the relationship shared between North American Jewry and Israel.
What is also increasingly clear is that this imminent rupture is a sacrifice that Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to make. There is a new narrative emerging in Israel regarding non-Orthodox American Jewry that can be seen in the Israeli government’s disregard of our concerns regarding the Kotel, conversion, religious pluralism, a two-state solution and otherwise. In a sentence, it is a narrative that says that we don’t or won’t matter. The writing is on the wall, give it a generation or two and we will intermarry ourselves into oblivion. Our support can’t be counted on, and it is support that comes with far too many demands.
Progressive American Jews can’t keep the prime minister’s Knesset coalition together and are clearly out of favor with the present American administration. Who needs such pesky friends, all the more so when Israel enjoys an unprecedented set of shared interests with multiple Arab states allied against Iran? Far more reliable is the unquestioning support of Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians — communities that represent not just the agenda of a right-leaning Israeli government but who are also in the good graces of the American president. The picture is a complicated one, there are many pieces in play, but the emerging headline is there for all to see. There is a party going on, the hosts are President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and progressive American Jewry was not invited.
Progressive American Jews must learn to accept a gift even if we don’t like who gave it or why it was given.
If the stakes weren’t so high, it is a slight that, as a progressive American Jew, I could live with. We have our own problems to worry about. Some would say that if we care so much, we should make aliyah. As a rabbi, why even bother criticizing Israel if it will undoubtedly be misrepresented by some Internet troll as a form of Israel bashing, and not as it intended, as an expression of profound love for Israel? Why do any of this, if as progressive American Jews we are not even invited to the party?
Tradition explains that the fall of the Second Commonwealth came about not only due to infighting amongst the Jewish community, but because people stood on the sidelines when they should have and could have intervened. When it comes to Israel, inaction is a choice that will undermine the Jewish state and Jewish people. Progressive American Jews must engage in those efforts that strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Especially in our present political climate, we must find our voice and take action to ensure the future of a safe and secure Israel, an Israel bound together in spirit and deed with world Jewry of all stripes.
Progressive American Jews must learn to accept a gift even if we don’t like who gave it or why it was given. We must plant seeds for Israel’s future and most of all, we must, if we want to be taken seriously by Israelis, take ourselves seriously as Jews. Neutrality is never an ally to progress, and in the case of Israel will only serve to perpetuate an increasingly dangerous status quo. For Zion’s sake we dare not keep silent.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove is the senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan.