[by Roberta P. Seid]
Irvine, CA (Sh’ma) – For 2,000 years, Jews, as a persecuted minority, often survived only because far-flung Jewish communities remained interconnected and offered aid. Today, American Jews, the world’s second largest Jewish community, are questioning what it means to be supportive of the world’s largest Jewish community, Israel, where Jews are no longer a minority, but a sovereign nation.
The debate stems partially from disagreements about how Israel should address its grave challenges: a stalled peace process, persistent Arab rejectionism, and looming military threats from Iran and its proxies. Even more, the debate is fueled by an aggressive propaganda campaign that distorts human rights language and reality to portray Israel as so evil that it should not exist. This toxic narrative is called the “new anti-Semitism,” with the “Jewish state” and “Zionist” replacing “Jew” in a lethal variant of classical anti-Semitism.
A somewhat sanitized version pervades leftist and even some liberal circles and campuses where supporting Israel appears to conflict with upholding social justice values, making some Jews uncomfortable to identify as pro-Israel. A new organization, J Street, has tried to redefine “pro-Israel,” but critics charge that J Street’s redefinition includes anti-Israel elements.
In this environment, what constitutes a pro-Israel approach for American Jews?
While American Jews across the political spectrum can vigorously debate Israeli policies, Natan Sharansky has identified three “Ds” that distinguish constructive criticism from the destructive criticism that has become the new anti-Semitism. The three “Ds” are: delegitimization, including denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; double standards, so that Israel is accused and judged by a standard expected of no other nation; and demonization through lies and half-truths that ignore or minimize Israel’s achievements and the context for Israel’s actions.
To be identified as pro-Israel, American Jews should support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to defend itself, even if this requires military measures. They should respect Israel’s democracy and the decisions of its elected government, despite disagreements with specific policies. Israelis’ blood, sweat, and tears, not those of Americans, build and protect the country, and it is their lives that are on the line.
American Jews should not presume to know what is best for Israelis or to lobby the American government to coerce Israel into adopting policies that oppose the will of Israel’s well-informed and highly educated electorate. Israel’s supporters should not urge Israel to make premature concessions or ignore the wider context of radical Islamist movements that call for Israel’s destruction. Israelis alone will bear the consequences of their decisions, not Americans living safely thousands of miles away.
Pro-Israel Americans should expose and energetically fight the three “Ds” and their malicious “BDS” campaign against Israel of boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The campaign’s goal isn’t to help Palestinians. Its only goal is fomenting hatred against Israel. Pro-Israel Americans should puncture the three “Ds” as perverse caricatures, showing that Palestinians are not simply the innocent victims depicted, but actors in the complex realities of Palestinian society and politics that contribute to the current impasses and to Palestinian extremism.
To be pro-Israel is to know that the cause is just and to remain inspired by the story of the country’s founding. It is the epic of the beleaguered yet determined Jews who survived 2,000 years and reentered history as a sovereign nation in their homeland; it is the story of what has been accomplished in just 100 years – a liberal democratic state with a booming economy in a resource-poor land, a multicultural society brimming with creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity and humanitarianism.
And yet, the country is far from perfect. Like all sovereign nations, Israel must wield power to survive and prosper, taking actions that are often politically and morally messy and even unpopular. But like other nations, Israel is still evolving, and it strives to live up to the highest ethical standards in circumstances that would challenge far older, more established nations.
Those who claim that supporting Israel conflicts with social justice values have fallen prey to the moral inversion of the anti-Israel narrative and its unchecked spread. Support for Israel is support for social justice values. It is the toxic new anti-Semitism that, like its predecessors, endangers Jews and the human rights standards the modern world has so painstakingly developed.
(Roberta P. Seid, Ph.D., a historian, is education/ research director for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization, and a former member of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group, which has analyzed Palestinian and Israeli demography. She currently teaches a course on Israel at the University of California, Irvine.
This article first appeared at Sh’ma.com, as part of a forum on what it means to be a loyal Jew.)