Mondoweiss / March 9, 2023
The fascistic new Israeli government is a step too far for liberal Zionists. So, some in the pro-Israel lobby are calling on American Jews to criticize Israel, and bring the politicians.
For decades the marching orders of the Israel lobby were to prevent any daylight between the American government and the Israeli one. And they succeeded: Criticizing Israel became a third rail in U.S. politics.
Well, now those orders are changing before our eyes. The fascistic new Israeli government is a step too far for liberal Zionists; and segments of the pro-Israel community are calling on American Jews to criticize Israel, and bring the politicians too. These voices are not anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism is still a heresy in the Jewish community. The critics are mainly concerned with the crisis of Israeli “democracy” and not Palestinian human rights. But the good news is that the breakup in mainstream Jewish consensus is at last opening the communal doors, and anti-Zionists are sure to gain a hearing.
The evidence for this trend are three or four articles. Tom Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times calling on Jews to come out against Israel’s rightwing government and warned Netanyahu that if he doesn’t back down, “the subject of Israel could fracture every synagogue and Jewish communal organization in America.” (Good news!) The New Republic ran an article calling on American liberal Zionists to step in to help transform rightwing Israeli politics, and quoted some non-Zionists saying that Israel was Jewish supremacist from the start.
Then there’s a sermon from a liberal Zionist rabbi, Sharon Brous, denouncing Jewish supremacy in Israel — and not losing her career for it. Not to mention Alex Kane’s reporting at Jewish Currents that some of ADL’s younger staff members rebelled last spring at its director equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
Friedman’s piece in the New York Times — “American Jews, You Have to Choose Sides on Israel” — is very conservative. He wants American support for Israel to continue, he just wants Netanyahu to back off on judicial reforms. So go picket Finance Minister Smotrich’s visit to the U.S. next week to sell Israel Bonds.
Friedman describes the fractures taking place inside American synagogues, and quotes from an Israel-critical sermon by Rabbi Brous in Los Angeles last month that in years past might have ended her career (Brous says) but appears to have lifted Brous’s status.
Brous’s sermon should be widely read because she denounces ideas of Jewish supremacy and the PEP contradiction — liberal Jews being progressive except for Palestine. She can’t bring herself to call out apartheid, and thinks Israel is a “miracle,” but here is a bold portion of her sermon:
About a half a decade ago, I started to notice the words “Jewish supremacists” migrating from neo-Nazis and KKK members into my own racial justice circles. I bristled. I challenged. I argued. Yes, there’s always been a small, fringe group of Jews ideologically committed to the notion that Jewish people are fundamentally deserving of privilege and status over others. But this was a marginal group, and the attacks… felt dangerous, intellectually lazy, and morally irresponsible.
Some years passed, and now what was in fact a fringe group of Jewish supremacists has fully stepped into the mainstream. These most visible adherents of Jewish supremacist ideology are now not hiding in the dark corners of the internet or whispering in the back of shul. They now hold the most powerful ministerial positions in the government. As painful as it is, we must affirm that Jewish supremacy poses a real and present danger to the Jewish State and to the Jewish people….
Where we are today is the natural outcome of the messianic fervor of a movement that has grown over many decades. There is a dangerous ascendant force of Jewish supremacy in our community, and we must fight it with all our might, or we will lose everything.
Brous can’t bring herself to say, Anti-Palestinian, Jewish-supremacist American Jews served to protect apartheid in Congress and the White House.
But the apartheid-discourse is an important element of that piece in the New Republic, “Can American Jewish Support for Israel Survive This New Government.” Author Emily Tamkin quotes an Upper West Side rabbi raging against the apartheid label and BDS, but saying, Now apartheid is coming; and Tamkin then cites the Human Rights Watch Report that documented apartheid in 2021. So this article is another step in normalizing the apartheid label.
Tamkin’s hero is Andrew Vogel, a reform rabbi in Brookline who says, “There are members of my congregation who want to wash their hands of Israel,” but that’s a “huge mistake.” Vogel leads congregants on a “dual perspective trip” to Israel and Palestine. His congregants “were angry about what they had seen, but [said] that their ‘commitment to Israel has deepened.’” (Sigh.)
Shaul Magid is the antihero of the article. He brings up the Nakba, he says Israel was always like this– an “illiberal” society– and U.S. Jews are just discovering it. “For liberal American Jews, if this, our current moment, is an inflection point, it’s because ‘it undermines what I think was always a myth: Somehow American liberalism and Israel are symmetrical in some way,’ Shaul Magid said. The liberal elements of Zionism were always marginal, he told me,” Tamkin writes. “Israeli forces expelled Arabs at the country’s advent. They placed Arab citizens under martial law for nearly 20 years after the country’s inception, and then, a year after that was lifted, began an occupation that continues to this day.” Beautiful intervention.
The article quotes several non-Zionists, including Hasia Diner, Khaled Elgindy, Zaha Hassan, and James Zogby. “You cannot build a nation on the idea that not all human beings have rights,” Lara Friedman says. “You can’t do that for decades and not inculcate a political culture that is what you see today.”
Both Tamkin and Friedman’s pieces are refreshing for their honest description of the Israel lobby.
Writes Friedman, Since Israel’s founding, “the ‘religion’ of many nonobservant American Jews” has been “supporting the country’s security and its economic development and cementing its diplomatic ties to the U.S…. That mission drove fund-raising and forged solidarity among Jewish communities across America.”
While Tamkin says that liberal Jews helped form the Israel lobby. After 1967, “Israel moved to the center of American Jews’ politics and self-imagination. To be an American Jew, including a liberal American Jew, was to support Israel.” So Jews over 40 grew up with the idea that their “job” as American Jews “is to support Israel,” Hadar Susskind of Americans for Peace Now explains.
Susskind points out how effective this programming was politically: “The political education of many members of Congress was such that ‘you don’t criticize the Israeli government,’ he added. But it’s incumbent on American Jews, he said, to encourage their elected leaders to speak up for human rights, even if that comes with some political cost.”
How long will it take for these changes in the liberal Zionist community to have a political effect? Democratic politicians still believe that it’s death to criticize Israel, that it cuts off donors and media approval. They may have heard these far-off rumblings in the Jewish community, but they still want their photo-opp with racist Netanyahu. Even liberal Democrats. This ought to be the subject of investigative journalism. And it will be, some day.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006