This letter is to you. You know who you are, but I can’t say your names. You don’t want to say what you think in public, in the United States of America, home of free speech. You are an American Jew, you are liberal, you believe in universal equality, minority, human and civil rights. You support those principles with your voices, your money and definitely your vote – except when it comes to Israel.
After two weeks in America visiting family (particularly, my new nephew) and friends, two observations struck me powerfully. First, the understanding that Israel is committing terrible deeds that are destroying itself and its neighbors, has penetrated among you, my American Jewish friends, family and colleagues, who now speak of this more openly and bluntly than in the past.
It has been a hard thing for you to admit. All these years, you supported Israel, because as a Jew you felt connected to the state culturally, spiritually, religiously, nationally, because of the history of persecution, or just because that’s what Jews did. You defended its existence for so long against formidable enemies.
But now, regardless of the enemy, Israel has crossed your political and social red lines. You can no longer ignore the daily violations of human rights and general freedom denied to millions of Palestinians, the humiliations, the imprisonment, beatings, midnight arrests, lack of due process, circus military tribunals for children, killings, coerced confessions, let alone racist legislation and fundamentalist religious coercion and other things you would never, ever stand for as liberals in the United States. Some of you are confused because you still want to support Israel. Others, as Peter Beinart has argued, have dropped away. Some of you now feel alienated from Judaism altogether.
My second observation is that because of your fear – not of the goyim or the anti-Semites, but of yourselves! – you are keeping a low public profile. On this trip, I suddenly realized how naïve it was to imagine that J Street had sufficiently opened the door for anyone who cares critically for Israel to speak out. I underestimated how deep and terrible the intimidation has become and that one political lobby group is far from enough.
I do understand: those of you who still call the Jewish community home, are afraid of the onslaught that you will receive from your (our) very own people. I hold no illusions about how vicious the attacks might be. We Jews, not the goyim, will call you the most painful names, will threaten in various ways to label you as beyond the pale of your people, should you voice your critique. You might be chastised in your professional community. You will be hit not only by shadowy bloggers but by the very cherished and established groups you have loyally, even automatically, supported over the years. The anger might come from your friends and it might even come from your family.
But you are my family, too! You used to argue that I was too naïve and too idealistic. On this trip, I was stunned to learn that now you don’t even really want to visit Israel because you can’t face what you’re increasingly coming to see as a brutal occupying entity flirting with fascist notions. Amazement set in when it dawned on me that you, who used to visit and insist on buying blue-and-white, have effectively – if unwittingly – enacted a personal boycott. The irony is that your own community has pushed you there, by giving you no alternative and no freedom to express openly how you feel.
Here’s how that made me feel: abandoned, by the liberal Jews of America. You were swept away by Ruth Wisse’s thesis that liberals betrayed the Jewish cause by believing too much in rational universalism and failing to acknowledge the unique, everlasting threat of anti-Semitism.
I submit that your betrayal lies in not advancing those ideals enough. You hold the United States to the highest standards of freedom, but your liberalism fainted at the borders of Israel, and it died on the Green Line.
I became pained to think that as long as you could believe Israel was beautiful, you supported it. When Israel’s beauty was marred, the Hasbara gurus tried to smooth things out. But when you correctly identified cheap emotional manipulation, you tuned out – and now you may be dropping out.
This is the time to speak out. This is the time to take a risk, as we Israelis who believe in change take the many risks involved in demanding that Israel stop what it is doing, for everyone’s sake.
You – the educated and highly educated, upper middle class and above, top-of-your-field professionals and intellectuals – you are in hiding from an absurdly illiberal discourse in American Jewish life. You’re not even in the ring.
If you’re not sure what to do, because there is no clear answer to the conflict, I say the greatest need is to fill the glaring void where there should be a voice, a presence: Start with calling for an end to any policy that advances the occupation. Say it in synagogues, in letters to the editor, in op eds, in rallies (remember the quarter-million march in DC to free Soviet Jewry?), signs, viral emails, anything to make your ideas louder. Talk to one friend. Talk to J Street which is struggling valiantly, or start your own group; take your donations away from those who help silence you. Send money to an organization if it reflects your thinking, but more importantly, just speak and keep speaking.
We need you. We’re doing everything we can from Israel. Ignore the bullies, let them scream. When there are enough of us, those who curse Israel with their complicity in its policies will be left behind and alone on the cold, dark side of history.