Bending the Arc of Justice

17 September 2015
By: Debra Pell

I moved to Israel twenty years ago because I wanted to personally impact the direction of a new and young society. I sold my house in San Francisco and landed in Jerusalem full of idealism and hope. I felt the impulse – and still do – to make sure that this Jewish state would be true to the heritage of the values that our people nurtured over generations.

To me, those values are intimately tied to democratic values. Judaism teaches us that each person was created in God’s image, and that therefore each person deserves respect and must have equal rights before the law. Over two millennia of statelessness, we Jews came to understand that minorities could easily be excluded from mainstream society and that this exclusion has profoundly negative consequences. In Israel, as envisioned by Herzl and the founders, there would be no such thing as a second-class citizen.

I believed then – as I do now – that this was possible because my home country of America had also endured and overcome major injustices. When the U.S. was barely fifty years old, women did not have the right to vote and the abolitionist movement was struggling to confront the reality of slavery. Today, America is still struggling with gender and racial inequality, and acceptance of minorities is still a work in progress.

Israel is a much younger society, facing enormous pressures within and without. And those pressures have their costs. We have enormous gaps between rich and poor. We have institutionalized discrimination facing Palestinian citizens. We have the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and religious matters.

These are shortcomings that we can overcome together. Indeed, upon moving to Israel I involved myself immediately in Israeli organizations doing exactly that, including in the grantmaking of the New Israel Fund. Early victories enabled women to be pilots, outlawed discrimination by religion or origin, and furthered tolerance and equality.

But today I worry that Israel’s arc might no longer automatically bend towards justice. The democratic values and public institutions that enable a free society to slowly but surely improve are themselves under assault. Instead of a march towards increasing freedom and equality, we’ve seen progress rolled back. Ultra-nationalism, religious extremism, and racism are far too prominent. There are political movements that seek to paint justice advocates as “the enemy within.” Over half of teenage Israelis don’t believe non-Jews should be equal before a court of law. Political leaders openly pit social groups against each other – rich against poor, Ashkenazi against Mizrahi, African refugee against urban poor.

Looming over them all, the occupation is a multi-faceted threat. It defaces the best Jewish values and fundamentally undermines my country’s standing. It threatens our safety by fueling the rage of the Palestinians. And it has a profound impact that I see on our young people, many of whom come out of their military service with big questions about our country’s leadership and decision making.

These are threats to the fundamental principles of democracy. We must do something different. We Israelis must launch new initiatives and turbocharge the progressive, pro-democracy camp. These initiatives must focus on building new bridges between social groups, strengthen progressive thought leadership, and prioritize those forces best positioned to improve public discourse. We must move the Israeli public to take a stand against injustice. And American Jewry must speak louder and deepen its partnerships addressing these issues.

This is actually what the New Israel Fund’s recently launched initiatives do and why I have just made my largest donation to NIF. I’m proud to match every donation made between now and October 2, 2015 — up to a total of $250,000.

There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis like me who haven’t lost sight of the lessons of our Jewish heritage. When we join forces, we are the seeds of a potentially enormous pro-democracy movement. We struggle to make Israel better. Together, by pressing for an end to the occupation, freedom of region and speech, women’s right, civil rights and human rights we can make Israel a better country for all its citizens.

Join me. This is our moment.