Let Us Work Together
Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel
Progressive activists in Israel are facing tremendous challenges — hostile governments, complex bureaucracies, and ongoing conflict.
Over the past decade we have been feeling increasingly isolated. The right wing in Israel receives massive, growing support from Jewish (and Evangelical) constituencies in North America. While this conservative support is growing exponentially, support from American liberals is declining. The majority of the North American Jewish community has liberal political and religious views and self-identifies as “pro-Israel.”1 Yet American Jewish support for progressive activities in Israel is diminishing. With current extreme anti-democratic trends in Israel,2 many Jews are struggling to balance their liberal political and religious positions with their support for Israel. Too often, this struggle leads to liberals disengaging from Israel and Israeli progressive activists and organizations losing support — moral, political, and financial support.
In order to break the isolation, I believe we need to redefine the meaning of “pro-Israel.” If “pro-Israel” only means embracing every Israeli government policy, too many liberal Jews will not be able to identify themselves as such. We need to define “pro-Israel” as supporting Israel’s Declaration of Independence, supporting the Israel that lives up to the dreams of its founders, and supporting those Israeli organizations and activists that share our progressive values and work to protect them.
Anti-democratic trends around the world use fear to enable national leaders to gain more power, incite people against minorities, and attack gender equality — all in an attempt to sustain or restore a power structure that will preserve the supremacy of old elites. These trends appear not only in Israel, but in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the world.
Recent years have put extensive demands on us progressives on both sides of the ocean as we have strived to advance our Jewish vision of just societies. Facing tremendous backlash, we have had to work in more focused, strategic, and innovative ways…
There are two narratives of the situation in Israel and Palestine that dominate the discourse in North America. One is the narrative of Israel’s public diplomacy: Israel can do no wrong; the IDF is the most moral army in the world; there is no solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict; the stagnation of the process toward a two-state solution is the fault of the Palestinians; and the conflict within Israel is either nonexistent or not important. Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative less and less.
The second narrative claims that there is a huge moral problem with Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and that the only appropriate response is boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative more and more.
Our movement works for social justice in North America and Israel. It is up to us to build a third narrative — one that acknowledges the moral challenges, and one that is determined to arrive at a solution building on a more intentional and strategic partnership between North American and Israeli progressive activists.
As liberal Zionists, our goal is for our society to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). We aspire to achieve the prophetic Jewish vision of a repaired world and a just society. We want more than to be measured in comparison to our neighboring countries or to other countries violating human rights.
Discussing social justice questions means to scrutinize and analyze complex power structures, traditions, and belief systems. As demonstrated in the chapters of this book, there are multiple and multilayered social justice questions to be discussed both in and in regard to Israel. Many North American Jews pull away from Israel because they are disappointed by its government policies — and because they shy away from an overwhelmingly complicated issue. Speaking about addressing the social justice questions in Israel, one cannot hope for simple, instant solutions. But this must not discourage us.
Many progressives in North America have a nuanced understanding of gender equality and racial justice and feel a deep commitment to work toward the establishment of these values in Israel. They understand that this will require sustained, long-term efforts. We, together with our North American Reform Movement, are looking at systems of injustice that will take immense labor and time to transform. It will take decades. However, every time we cannot provide any answer to the question “What do we do about Israel?” we feed into a growing sense of frustration and disconnect. We need to find a balance between implementing the necessary short-term fixes and our work toward longer-term structural and institutional change.
Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States
The challenge of Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist and artist, in doing the work of justice, often echoes in my mind. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” she said. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”3 Our redemption as American Jews and as Israelis is tied to one another…
Those of us working for social justice in American cities are confronting a harsh reality of increasing anti-Zionism. As I teach about Judaism and address social issues — from refugees to racism, from countering antisemitism to expanding affordable housing — I have learned to expect questions or comments about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes the inquiry is motivated by a desire to increase understanding and engage in dialogue. Sometimes the remark is accusatory: “How can you stand for justice and stand for Israel?” Sometimes the statement is said on a stage at a rally, vigil, or event and before hundreds or thousands. The phrase “Israel’s oppression of Palestinians” is woven into a litany of other social wrongs, leaving me feeling both defensive and wounded.
As Americans, we regularly face a decontextualized condemnation of Israel in our newspapers, on our social media feeds, and in the streets where we strive to support others. Admired American social justice authors and leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis publicly decry the Palestinian plight, often based on an unbalanced or one-sided assessment. We struggle to respond effectively.
What can we say to underscore Israel’s complex history and capture our disagreement with some of Israel’s policies, while still supporting the Jewish state we love? What can we do to affirm our commitment to global social justice without fueling the fires of anti-Zionism or antisemitism that threaten us all? Former member of Knesset and famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offered clarity for our dialogue in noting the three d’s of the new antisemitism of which we need to be continually cognizant: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization.4 While criticizing Israel is not in itself antisemitic, antisemitism often uses criticism of the Israeli government as concealment for its true intentions. As liberal Zionists, we see the moral crisis in the ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and we seek to bring peace and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. We can hold both these complex truths in our activism.
The attack on equality in Israel is not only aimed at the non-Jew; it is also aimed at non-orthodox Jews. In November 2017, when images of our Reform Jewish American and Israeli leaders being assaulted for carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza appeared in our media, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter called me for an interview and tried to badger me into saying that Israel’s leaders had gone too far and that there are limits to our relationship and support. My response was the opposite. In those times when Israel’s government devalues us as liberal Jews or promotes policies that contradict the pluralism and equality we demand, we need to double down on our work — amplify our voices, exert our influence, and deepen our Israel-American partnership. Just as we North American Jews support Israel, we appeal to our Israeli sisters and brothers to support us. We need a deep and mutual relationship.
As Rabbi Noa Sattath so beautifully articulated, we need a new narrative — not the right-wing or orthodox narrative of ethnocentrism, and not the BDS narrative of isolation and alienation, but a narrative that acknowledges the moral crisis in Israel and advocates for engagement to create change. Just as social justice activists understand systemic racism and the fact that these structures were created over centuries, the Israeli systems of inequality were created over time. It will take time to dismantle them — policy by policy. We as social activists understand that change starts with story and with relationships.
North American progressive Zionists feel alone in their defense of Israel on our city streets and in our daily encounters. Israeli progressive Zionists feel abandoned by their North American counterparts. We need not feel alone; we can work together in partnership.
Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Rabbi Judith Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. They served as consulting editors as well as contributors to the newly released anthology Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.