Here are two vital questions that dare not speak their name: Is Israel in 2023 at a politically fateful, or even morally fatal, turning point? Or is this moment in Israeli history the equivalent of the revolutionary year of 1848 in Europe, when, as the English historian A.J.P. Taylor put it in an entirely different context, “German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn?”
“These are not crazy questions to ask,” said David Mednicoff, associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy at UMass Amherst.
The story of Israel depends on the answer. The relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state depends on it. The security of Israel depends on it.
The indications are ominous. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for years the darling of conservative American Jews and, just as often and just as profoundly, the bête noire of liberal American Jews, has pushed beyond the conventional, natural boundaries of democratic life. His initiative affecting the role, prerogatives. and powers of the Israeli Supreme Court has prompted marches in Israeli streets and deep consternation in American synagogue pews.
Seldom – perhaps never, since 1948 – have American Jews’ hands been wrung with such agony and passion over Israel.
Here is what has prompted that agony, succinctly summarized by The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg: “The radical wish list produced by Netanyahu’s coalition seeks not to reform the court but to neuter it, and would essentially allow the ruling government to appoint all judges and override their decisions.”
The War of Independence and the wars of 1956, 1967, 1973 – and then various intifadas and other episodes – have produced moments of real and substantial peril. But in those fraught cases the peril was accompanied by broad unity.
In the past 75 years, there have been multiple junctures when Israel’s survival was at stake, to be sure. But there have been few moments when its essential democratic character was in the balance.
The threats by and large came from outside its borders – and both inside Israel and in the Jewish diaspora there was a general sense of unity, particularly in the United States. American Jews rooted for Israel as if it were the home team, and to some it was. And while there may have been qualms about Israeli leadership – not everyone loved Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, until they did – there were few qualms about the values and virtues of Israel. Even as the settlements in occupied territory spread, American Jews generally supported the Israeli project.
Not so much anymore.
This is a moment never contemplated, not even by the Netanyahu critics, nor even by those who looked at the Palestinian situation and were repelled. For years, for decades, Jewish eyes mainly looked askance at the suffering and the circumstances in the occupied lands.
Israel was – here is the phrase you heard, time after time – an island of democracy in a sea of Arab autocracy. Israel was – you heard this, too – a country with values that were congruent with America’s. The theme was: Yes, Israel could do better, far better, with the Palestinian file, but overall the country is a miracle, economic and moral.
Not so much anymore.
The progression from there to here can be traced on almost a straight line. Consider the standard ripostes in days of old. Israel: a land without a country for a people without a land. No one dares say that today, for it was never true and surely is not true now. Israel: the country that made the desert bloom. No one says that anymore, because there is another people in the desert, and the bloom is off the Israeli rose. Israel: the state that worships the same values as we do. No one says that anymore, because it isn’t, or at least its governing regime isn’t.
This doesn’t please anyone, not even those who regarded the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as outré warriors.
“People have felt a strong affinity for Israel,” said Mednicoff. “But Israel’s politics is increasingly influenced by right-wing ultra-nationalist sentiments and people. That doesn’t play well with most American Jews. There’s more distrust than we have ever seen. People who stood by Israel even with the Palestinian issue have been asking important questions. And there’s a generational change among younger American Jews who don’t have the same commitment to Israel.”
The evidence of disaffection is everywhere. On Tisha B’Av last month, Andrew Rehfeld, the president of Hebrew Union College, noted how appropriate the reading from the Book of Lamentations was: “I am distressed, my innards are roiled, my heart churns within me. For surely I have rebelled.” Then he added: “As our hearts churn watching Israel’s government weaken its Supreme Court’s ability to check its democratic excesses, to invoke Abraham Joshua Heschel’s powerful image, we stand in solidarity with all those on the ground ‘praying with their feet.’” It is not unimportant that Rehfeld is a political scientist.
Then consider the reaction in the New York Times, not to be dismissed with a smirk for its political profile. Thomas L. Friedman, reflecting Joe Biden’s disaffection with Netanyahu, wrote a piece bearing the title “Joe Biden May Be the Last Pro-Israel Democratic President.” Nicholas Kristof wrote a Times column addressing the notion that the U.S. might cease, or curtail, its economic support of Israel. “This is not about whacking Israel,” he wrote. “But does it really make sense for the United States to provide the enormous sum of $3.8 billion annually to another wealthy country?”
Do you suppose the three sentences quoted in the paragraph above would have been written – would even have been contemplated – had Mr. Netanyahu not pursued this path? To ask the question is to answer it.
So, the tragedy of this episode is that the questions that dared not speak their names – not just the ones at the beginning of this essay, but more fundamental questions, the kind that are sometimes, and too casually, described as “existential” – are being asked everywhere. For these questions call into question the existence of Israel, and the existence of the ties American Jews have, or had, with Israel: the ties that bind, and that are unbound now.
Jews are a questioning people, but the tragedy is that these questions – once off the table, once all but forbidden among American Jews, once beyond conceivable – are being raised at all. They are being raised because Israel has fallen from its pedestal, from its special place in American life, above all from its special place in the lives of American Jews. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.