Fault Lines

29 May 2014

This month marks my four and a half year anniversary as NIF’s CEO. During this time, we’ve seen massive changes in Israel. Some of them have been dispiriting, to say the least. We’ve seen the rise of an Israeli version of the Tea Party with an anti-democratic legislative agenda and a Hebrew-accented McCarthyism, complete with witch hunts targeting progressive civil society organizations, Palestinian citizens of Israel, leftists, immigrants, and anyone else who dares disagree with their hard-line vision for Israel. We’ve seen the collapse of the latest round of the peace process. And we’ve seen the rise of “one staters” on both the right and left. Those hard-right Israeli politicians who today argue that the Green Line is irrelevant and who call for annexation of parts of the West Bank begin to sound an awful lot like the hard-left Global BDS crowd: both believe there is no difference between Tel Aviv and Kiryat Arba, between Haifa and Ariel.

But it’s not all bad news. Just as in our own sometimes stumbling democracy, Israel often takes one step forward, two steps back. But the steps forward are amazing. Over the past four and a half years, Israelis concerned with the direction of their country have made their voices heard. In 2010, thousands of Israelis from across the political spectrum pushed back against what our former Board President Naomi Chazan described as a “democratic recession,” and all but three of the anti-democratic bills that were put forward in the 18th Knesset were defeated. (The three that passed are being challenged in the High Court). In the summer of 2011, half a million people took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva demanding social justice. Some of the young leaders of that movement now serve in the Knesset, where they strive every day to realize the goals of the protests that launched them. In the summer of 2012, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets again, calling on ultra-Orthodox Israelis to “share the burden” of Israeli citizenship. At the same time, NIF grantees like Women of the Wall, Kolech, Yerushalmim and Be Free Israel put the need to challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over many aspects of Israeli life on the radar screen of millions of Israelis. As a result, real changes have occurred at the Western Wall and on Israeli buses, and Israeli leaders are taking the issue of religious freedom quite seriously.

The fault-line that is shaking Israel runs deep under the ocean, and it is contributing to the tectonic shifts that are now rattling the landscape of the American Jewish community. It seems like not a month goes by without the American Jewish press covering the latest story about the play, film, speaker, etc. at the JCC, museum, day school, etc., that has caused a controversy in the local community because of, always, the view of Israel being espoused. In our community institutions, our university campuses and our shuls, we now witness the absurd and depressing spectacle of some Jews trying to limit the ability of other Jews to speak freely and publicly because of their opinions about Israel. But here, too, people of conscience from across the political spectrum are standing up and speaking out. In New York City, where hardliners are protesting the participation of NIF and other progressive pro-Israel organizations in the annual Israel Day Parade, community leaders from the JCRC, Federation and beyond have forcefully spoken in defense of our participation. And in the wake of the absurd rejection of J Street’s bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, many member organizations of the Conference have publicly stated that is time to reform that organization.

Here and in Israel, ours is a polarized community. Those espousing a Jewish identity based on fear, one of exclusivity, ethnocentricity, and defensiveness are loud, committed, and well-funded. Those of us who cherish a different kind of Jewish identity, one that is open, secure, tolerant and forward-thinking need to articulate our vision for Israel and the Jewish community loudly and proudly. In the end, it is this vision that has the only chance of resonating with the next generation of American Jews, and ensuring a safe and just future for the state of Israel.


  1. A commitment to a safe and just future for the state of Israel is what Israeli and American Jews need. It would have been absurd to bar J Street from the parade just as, in a much more serious vein, it was absurd to reject J Street from membership in the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations. I am glad to know that the JCRC and the Federation were helpful and wish many more were helpful.

  2. I used to tease that J Street was AIPAC-Lite, and sympathized with AIPAC (or, let us say more precisely, major mainstream Jewish organizations) for condemning J Street, as it seemed, for wanting the same things but not being realistic about what they cost.
    Your closing remark puts that gibe to the test. What is the difference between “fear, exclusivity, ethnocentricity and defensiveness” as the foundation of a state and one that is “open, secure, tolerant and forward-thinking”?
    I think the fault-line, the seismic pressure, the surging contradiction, whatever that metaphor is supposed to entail, is that Israel is not facing the intrinsic contradictions in the concept, if a concept can be contradictory . . . in the phrase, at any rate, then, “Jewish and democratic state”. The two sides in my fault-line metaphor would be those who think that the failure to face the intrinsic contradictions is a good thing and those who press for this deep tension to be “outed” and resolved, perhaps by dropping “democratic” from Israel’s legal aspirations.
    I don’t know that I would find that resolution cute or humorous, or even helpful. I think the real way forward is to focus on the concept of Jewish-ness. I just read your cited article in Al-Monitor (what does “AL” stand for?) about the talmud students in Jerusalem and the basketball tournament. Someone proposed years ago the tripartite terminology: Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism. In all of that cultural equipment, I wonder if there can be found a unitary harmonious formula for a state, one that does not depend on “shh, you know we can’t talk about this”.

  3. While it’s not “kosher” — in any Official Jewish circles, including this one — to refer to the Yiddish-speaking philosophers of Secular Jewishness, may I note that Dr. Khayim (Chaim, in the Germanic version so beloved by Officialdom) Zhitlovski, when advocating for an autonomous Jewish (and Yiddish-speaking — horrors!) region in the Czarist Pale of Settlement, averred that it would be the responsibility of its government to provide the Christian population with the traditional paskha (Easter bread). From the early 20th century, a concept of “Jewish AND democratic!”

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