Nathan Sharansky, the former Russian Jewish political prisoner, now Jewish Agency czar, responsible for Israel’s relations with Jews abroad, says, “The meaning of [the Rotem/Yisrael Beitanu conversion bill] is a split between the state of Israel and large portions of the Jewish people.” This is the pshat, the simple meaning of the bill. I would like to use this space to draw your attention to two other issues that arise regarding democracy and Israel advocacy.
Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” At the top of this list, democracy is still better in some places than others. A major difference is between the parliamentary systems of much of the world and the American democratic system. What works better for the people democracy is supposed to serve, the tyranny of the majority, as in the American system, or the tyranny of the minority parties as we are seeing in Israel?
Yisrael Beitanu and its orthodox partners in the conversion bill, combined, are not a majority of Israel, yet because of parliamentary politics, Israel and the Jewish people will have to live with a narrowly defined version Judaism dictated by the rabbis who represent a mere 15% of the Jewish people. And don’t get the impression that all orthodox Jews support the bill either.
Orthodox Jewish, Israeli Rabbinic Court layer, Rivkah Lubitch, fears the worst from the Rotem Bill. “Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote on the website YNET. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.” Simply put, Israeli parliamentary democracy is failing Israel and the Jews (and the absence of a constitution isn’t helping either.) This brings me to my second point, Israel advocacy.
Nathan Sharansky’s Jewish Agency for Israel just put out a short movie explaining the mission of the agency under his leadership. In the first minute, the narrator mentions how American college campuses can be scary places for Jewish students because of accusations of apartheid and other claims against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Later in the movie, the Agency’s goal of solidarity with Israel is emphasized. What if the claims of scary anti-Israel forces on campus were about Israel’s treatment of Jews? Would the Jewish Agency still insist on solidarity of the Jewish students toward the Jewish state?
Just as democracy has its variations and various levels of success serving its constituents, so does Israel have various levels of serving the interests of Jews. On the issue of who is a Jew? we are open to debate and even criticize Israel. When it comes to foreign policy, however, there is an expectation of solidarity.
I find this double standard to be incredibly hypocritical. I live in Israel. I served in the IDF, I pay my taxes and I am an active member of civil society, yet, if I were to express my concern over the government policy vis a vis the Palestinians at a demonstration in Sheik Jarrah, for instance, I might face arrest, tear gas or even worse, police brutality. Why is this?
As a member of Chicago Peace Now, while doing my doctoral work in America, I was physically attacked for bringing Professor Sari Nuseibeh to Chicago to speak, ridiculed for screening the celebrated Israeli movie Land of the Settlers, and lambasted for speaking out against the 2nd Lebanon War. Would I receive the same treatment for speaking out against the Rotem Bill?
Sure, some will say that their are internal issues, like who is a Jew? and external issues like how we treat our neighbors, but why let this be the dividing line between acceptable self criticism and criticism deserving of McCarthyism? Why not make the guiding question more generic?
My conception of what is good for the Jews is not solidarity; it’s what’s good for the Jews achieved by open, civil, critical discourse? There is no need for double standards because everything we do can stand up to the question “what is best for our people?” With this as our goal, instead of solidarity, we can self assess the benefits to the majority of those who self identify as Jews through democratic processes. Is it really best for the Jews that we occupy nearly 2 million West Bank Palestinians? Is it best that we deprive Gazans of chocolate and other more serious necessities? Is it best that the non-Jewish minorities in Israel live as second class citizens in the Jewish state? What do these things say about Judaism?
In all honesty, the call for solidarity, when Israel and the Jewish people need critical discourse and democracy, is bad for the Jews. It’s hypocritical and it doesn’t make being Jewish on campus scary, it makes being Jewish scary. This is why the Peter Beinhart, NY Review of Books, article is so important. Young Jews want an “open and frank” discussion about Israel and Judaism. If we don’t give it to them, not only will we not achieve solidarity, we will lose that other favorite Jewish buzz word, continuity.