The Great Sea-Change

12 November 2020

It is often said that Israel and the United States are united in partnership not merely by virtue of a set of aligned interests, but because of a commitment to a shared set of values. For the past four years, however, Americans have been in a pitched struggle among ourselves to determine what precisely constitutes our own American values: whether America stands for democracy, decency, equality and justice for every citizen or for a far narrower set of American values – the nativist exclusions of “America First” and the strain of white supremacy which has stained our nation’s soul from the start.

This past year has pitted these contrasting values against each other. We’ve seen over the past nine days of counting ballots that millions more Americans voted for inclusion, for democracy, and for renewed American leadership in the world. Yes, there is now a concerted, dishonest effort to deny the power of those votes by casting doubt on the legitimacy and integrity of the electoral process itself. This is a dangerous threat to our democratic system, which we ignore at our peril.

Nevertheless, it is fair to conclude that “a great sea-change” is coming in American public life, as my favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, put it in The Cure at Troy. Many of us are wondering what that means for us and for our mission of building a vibrant and just democracy in Israel.

In one sense, there will be something familiar in our return to a time when those in power share our commitments to the pursuit of justice and equality in Israel. I remember well what it is like to have a friend of Israel’s civil society in the White House, and an administration that fundamentally understood Israelis’ and Palestinians’ aspirations and hopes for a just future. We should expect that a new U.S. administration will be an ally in word and deed to those in Israeli society striving to make Israel a better version of itself.

We don’t have to think back too far to remember what it was like for the U.S. Secretary of State to take interest in Israelis’ campaigning for gender equality and to buoy their fight for women’s rights. That mattered. And I remember what it was like when American officials stated their readiness to phone an Israeli minister’s office to explain why the notion of a Knesset inquiry committee into NGOs’ activity would hamper Israel’s democracy and shrink the space for civil society. That mattered, too. These actions and attitudes made a difference.

We can expect a sea-change in another sense, as well. Over the last four years, the most obvious manifestation of the relationship between Israel and the U.S. was the political partnership between two men: Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump and Netanyahu pioneered a new kind of relationship – one of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” And scratch each other’s backs they did, prioritizing one another’s domestic political interests to an unprecedented degree.

Meanwhile, Trump’s Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, confirmed by the U.S. Senate despite his long history of zealous fealty to Israel’s settlement project – and to the ultra-nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that sustain it – unsurprisingly buttressed his passion project with singular focus. Headlining at the far-right Kohelet Forum and wielding a sledge-hammer to break new ground in a settlement project in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem, Friedman gave the imprimatur of the U.S. government to those seeking to refashion Israel’s society as an exclusivist nation-state perpetually sovereign in the occupied territories it controls.

Thankfully, one can expect such outrages to cease. This new day, we hope, will put the relationship on a different footing, one in which the quality of the two nations’ bond rises and falls on the strength of each one’s commitment to democratic values — not the political fortunes of the men at the top.

The truth is, it’s not merely Americans who are engaged in a struggle over our values. Israelis, too, are engaged in these questions, and tens of thousands are taking to the streets to fight for their own democracy.

Over twenty consecutive weeks, a diverse and cacophonous pro-democracy movement – scores of thousands of Israelis of every stripe – testifies to this hope. In front of the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem and across the country, citizens have shifted the public debate – not only to the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, but to the implications for Israel’s democracy of a prime minister’s abuse of his own high office for personal and political gain.

In a broader sense, these activists, sustained by a resilient infrastructure of civil society, and undeterred by water cannons and attempts to pass restrictive laws, have unearthed broader questions roiling under the surface of this moment – questions about the kind of country Israel wants to be, and whether all those who live under Israel’s domain have equal access to the rights of citizenship like freedom, dignity, and justice.

At the New Israel Fund, we know what kind of Israel we are fighting for. And we will be here – standing with our partners in Israeli civil society, to fight for democracy and for equality in Israel over the next four years and beyond.