Two weeks ago, I wrote about the shooting at UCLA in California, and how some of our friends spent several hours on lockdown. I echoed their frustration – which I share – about how difficult it is to talk about the political changes that need to happen to mitigate the danger posed by guns in American society in the face of the enormous influence of the gun lobby, even though they represent a minority of Americans. I spoke of the parallel situation in Israel in which the settler lobby is quick to punish politicians who don’t toe their ideological line.
Little did we know that within these two weeks we Americans would face the deadliest mass shooting in our history. But given the terrible confluence of factors that seem to be involved in the shooting, I think it’s time to take one more step to think critically about the hatred and division in both countries we cherish.
The Orlando shooter was a US-born American citizen of Muslim descent, meaning that his ethnicity opened the door for more virulent anti-Muslim vitriol from the presumptive Republican candidate for president and his admirers. The victims were largely gay and Latino, meaning that two already-marginalized sectors of American society lost dozens of their friends and family members. The murderer apparently said, during his rampage, that black people had already “suffered enough.”
What a terrible and in some ways quintessential American story. Victims and victimizer almost all belonged to groups that are demarcated by ethnicity, national origin or orientation. For the first time in more than a century, a presidential candidate is proposing a (almost certainly unconstitutional) ban on people of a certain religion entering the country. He already is running on a platform of building a wall to prevent Latin Americans from entering the U.S. And although the candidate himself may not be homophobic, among his followers there are many who actually dismissed the victims of the shooting as not worthy of mourning because so many were gay.
This kind of ugly, hateful ethnocentric nationalism is no surprise to Jews, in America or in Israel. We know, having suffered as the primary “Other” in our years of exile as a people, that once you start identifying rights of a nation’s citizens with its majority population, minority rights become tenuous and conditional. Today, the rhetoric of a presidential candidate of a major political party presents an alarming idea of what he considers truly “American.” But tens of millions of American have struggled and even died for the inclusive notion of America that so many of us cherish. And the threat of terrorism only exacerbates the “us vs. them” narrative that so well serves demagogues and would-be authoritarian leaders.
Now let’s take a deep breath and apply what we know about the U.S. to Israel.
Founded as a homeland for one long-persecuted people, in its very essence the state identifies with the Jewish ethnic and religious majority. Certain privileges, such as the Law of Return granting Israeli citizenship to any Jew from anywhere, are fundamental to the very idea of Israel.
Those of us who find inspiration in Herzl’s vision of Zionism understand that Israel is fundamentally different from the U.S. But we differ with those who espouse a radicalized distortion of Zionism in which the rights of the “others” who live in Israel should be less than equal to the rights of Jews.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, on paper, count as equal. In real life, everything from land and housing policies to the resources provided for education and social services are profoundly unequal. Just this week, we heard that a Cabinet decision approved this winter to end discrimination against Arab Israelis in budget allocations might not be implemented. Meanwhile, three million Palestinians live under Israeli control in the occupied territories without political rights. Other non-Jews living in Israel, from Christian clergy suffering “price-tag” attacks on their monasteries to foreign workers and African refugees, are also minorities with attenuated rights.
We at the New Israel Fund think that the hatred and divisiveness that is pulling Americans and Israelis apart is not only unnecessary and immoral but terribly damaging to both national projects. If we Americans trade in our hard-won identity as a welcoming, heterogeneous society that does not base any form of privilege on ethnicity or religion for the false promises and glittering lies of a demagogue, we will become something fundamentally and tragically different from what we are. If Israel does not return to the founding ideal that even a country founded as a haven for persecuted one people must treat all within its borders justly and equally, it will also become something fundamentally and tragically different from what its founders intended.
And if two nations founded, in different ways, on the hope that they can become and remain lights unto the nations, give in to demagogues’ cynical exploitation of fear and prejudice, then those lights may eventually go out.