I recently got an email from a liberal Jewish friend in America. He’s a Zionist, he’s interested in Jewish issues, and he’s not dumb. To my horror, he highly recommended the op-ed published in the NY Times on Sunday by Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, billionaire heir to the Estée Lauder fortune, former US Ambassador to Austria, and the ultimate American Jewish macher.
Lauder suggests that the State of Israel is defective from a moral point of view. He suggests that Israel has changed for the worse in recent years, and blames Israel’s government for “[undermining] the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment,” so as to “crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.”
The article – like a previous piece of his about the “two-state solution” published in March – is a sloppily constructed collection of talking points of the Israeli Left, the overall thrust of which is that Israel is turning into an undemocratic theocracy. The implication is that the “right-wing” government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has become a tool of the ultra-Orthodox factions, must be replaced.
This thesis was promulgated back in 2016 in a piece by Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn, which I examined here, and found to be the kvetching of a left-wing elite whose electoral strength evaporated after it almost destroyed the country, and which has been striving to come back ever since. Lauder makes similar arguments, but his examples are tuned to resonate with the liberal American public.
Lauder says that “we cannot allow the politics of a radical [ultra-Orthodox] minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.” If indeed that is what is going on, then one would expect that the majority of Israelis, who are also not ultra-Orthodox, would also be alienated from the government, and would not elect the Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu again and again. But as a matter of fact, despite the recent actions of the government, especially the passage of the Nation-State Law, support for it has never been higher.
Could it be that the view from Israel is different from the view from America? I think it is.
Take the first issue that Lauder cites, the failure of the government to keep its promise to the Reform and Conservative movements in connection with mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. This is something that only a tiny minority of Israeli Jews wants, and in a country on the verge of a two-front war with tens of thousands of missiles aimed at its population centers, one can understand why the PM chose to avoid the coalition crisis threatened by the ultra-Orthodox parties over this.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in America blew its top over this “insult to diaspora Jewry.” But the URJ is closely associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party which has strongly opposed the Netanyahu government; the Obama Administration even tried to influence the 2015 election against it. URJ President Rick Jacobs, a former activist in the left-wing J Street and New Israel Fund organizations, seems to be looking to pick fights with it. Many Israelis feel that the outrage over this and similar issues is manufactured for political purposes.
Lauder says that Israel passed a “law that denies equal rights to same-sex couples.” What he is referring to is a change to the law governing the benefits paid by the national health system for surrogate mothers. Benefits previously available only to male-female couples were extended to single women, but not to gay men, due to religious opposition. Maybe when the US has a national health system of any kind, not to mention one that pays for surrogate mothers for anyone, he can complain.
He also mentions the idiotic arrest of a Conservative rabbi on the complaint of a religious court for violating an equally idiotic law forbidding anyone to perform a Jewish marriage without permission from the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. He fails to mention that the rabbi was immediately released and the charges dropped by order of the Attorney General, and that the Prime Minister and even the Rabbinate criticized the arrest.
For lack of anything more substantive, Lauder even brings up convenience stores in some places being required to close on Shabbat, something that has been a political football since the first days of the state. There is and always will be tension between the ultra-Orthodox minority (about 10% of Jews) in Israel and the secular and traditional majority. But one can’t expect that the wishes of that 10% won’t have some effect on policies, whether Americans like it or not.
Lauder’s biggest problem is the passage of the Nation-State Law, which he claims “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.” I’ve written a number of posts about the law (here, here, and here, for example) and I would respond by saying that the “damage” is imaginary. In some cases – Israel’s Arab Knesset members – the passage of the law has exposed the fundamental anti-Zionism that underlies their opposition to it; a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night included Palestinian flags and chants of “with blood and fire we will redeem Palestine.”
The law does not affect in any way the individual civil, political or human rights of minority group members in Israel. Nobody’s right to vote, to employment, to housing, or to eat at a lunch counter or ride on a bus is affected by this law. It does clearly reserve the collective right of national self-determination in the state to the Jewish people, which is a fundamental principle of Zionism. Those who object to Israel’s Law of Return for Jews, or who think the descendants of Arab refugees from 1948 have a right of “return” to Israel – and these of course do not include Lauder – do have a real argument with the Nation-State Law. But they already have a problem with the continued existence of a Jewish state.
Lauder notes the guarantees of individual rights to all inhabitants in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “a guarantee of freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” implying that somehow the law damages these. It does not. Read it yourself.
He adds that the law may hurt Israel’s moral standing in the world. “Abroad, Israel may find itself associated with a broken values system and questionable friends. As a result, future leaders of the West may become hostile or indifferent to the Jewish state.” Unfortunately, most Western European regimes are already hostile to Israel, because they correctly understand that Zionism is a form of nationalism, and they have decided that nationalism is taboo in today’s world (in some cases, along with borders). Israel’s “questionable friends,” like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, are those who still believe in the legitimacy of nationalism, nation-states, and borders – concepts that are proving their survival value daily in today’s Europe.
Finally, Lauder fears that Israel’s “new policies” will alienate millennial youth, who are mostly not Orthodox, and who are opposed to discrimination of all kinds. I think it should be clear that Israel does not have “new policies” that discriminate – the opposite is true; Israel has, over the years, sharply reduced all forms of discrimination against women, Arabs, LGBT people, and others. And the Zionism expressed by the Nation-State Law is nothing new, insofar as it goes back to the 1890s and Theodor Herzl.
Lauder sees that American Jewish youth are moving away from the traditional liberal Jewish institutions, but he is wrong in placing the blame on Israel. The rampant assimilation that may end what we know as the liberal American Jewish community within two generations has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of that community, which young people are quick to notice.
The identification of Jewish ethics with progressive politics, imbued as it is with “intersectionality” and pathological “white” guilt, has made those brought up in that tradition easy prey for anti-Israel propaganda, based on the inversion of history and the false identification of the Jews as the invaders and colonialists of the Middle East. No wonder their support for Israel is waning!
Israel is a very small country which has been in a continuous fight for its life since its founding. We need to find our friends where we can. Ronald Lauder and the liberal Jewish establishment in the US, along with their associates in the Israeli Left, in essence want us to give up our Zionist principles so that we will better fit their universalist worldview. But if we surrender Zionism, we surrender everything. If that is the condition for their friendship and support, then we must respectfully decline.