The vast majority of American Jews awoke last Wednesday morning to devastating news: The electoral victory and zombielike return of Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s ousted, former prime minister. Despite serial trials for corruption and a willingness to join with extremist parties to forge what will be the most reactionary, ultranationalist and racist government in Israel’s history, a plurality of Israelis pulled the lever for Bibi and his minions.
This outcome threatens the already fraying bonds between an increasingly right-lurching Israeli government and most American Jews who cherish our liberal democracy. The embrace of liberal values by a consistent cohort of U.S. Jews has more to do with ideology and history than partisan politics. The freedoms of speech and religion, the sanctity of individual rights, and the reliance on reasoned discourse are the founding ideals that birthed a nation that has provided Jews with the most secure, prosperous and stable society in our tragic history.
Threats to these values are a repudiation of the foundations of our faith and imperil the survival of our communities. We Jews are history’s canaries in the coal mine: Where liberal democracy has flourished, so have Jews. Where it has waned, so have the conditions of Jewish life. Even in the Jewish state itself, this toxic transformation is a gift to its global detractors who can now point to evidence, paltry but palpable, of its ostensible pariah status.
Those on the center-left in Israel have begun what we call in our tradition a heshbon nefesh — a deep reflection and accounting of the soul. It is a process I suspect will also begin here this coming Wednesday. Yes, the classic fears of external threat and internal strife have driven even sensible voters into the arms of marginalized zealots. In Israel, an appeal to anti-Arab bigotry, stoked by last year’s riots in Arab towns, fed the rightward lurch. Figures like Ben-Gvir, a follower of the apocalyptic leader Meir Kahane, garnered far more support than could have been imagined even a few months ago. Ever the wily politician, Netanyahu rode the wave of ethno-nationalist fervor in the hopes of undermining the judiciary, to personally thwart proceedings against him, and to assert more authoritarian control over the justice system.
Just as in our current American political landscape, when asked to choose between appeals to misinformation, conspiracies and contempt for the other versus the sustaining of the liberal democratic principles upon which such choices depend, Israelis opted for rampant fear and misplaced pride over the institutions and structures that have sustained it for almost 75 years.
There’s no question that the center-left must hone a better message that responds to the anxieties and sense of humiliation felt by many Israelis and Americans. But it must also affirm the core values we still share in concerting our common cause toward the common good. It is a task easier said than done. But it is the only path forward if both nations are to survive.
And so, troubled American Jews have a fateful choice, one that echoes a similar calculation regarding the resurgence of authoritarian election deniers in the U.S.: To wash our hands of these insidious victors and the states they now govern. Or, to double down on our faith, to gird ourselves for the fight, and to refuse to concede our homes to the dark forces of regression and fear. In essence, American Jews have no choice. Israel is the inviolable core of our religious, cultural and communal identity. And America is the last best refuge from our horrific history.
For American Jewish leaders, our task to educate and advocate for Israel has become much more difficult. Especially with young adults, it will be challenging to affirm a love for and bond with Israel when its government spurns the essential lessons of our tradition. But just as so many of us assert the brilliance of the American ideal despite the sins of any one administration, so too must we continue to celebrate the miraculous redemption of our people as embodied in the modern Jewish state. We cannot surrender to the troubling and cyclical shifts in electoral politics. We must strive to secure the Israel and the America we love — the nations they can and should be — even, and especially, when the realities of the moment seem to depart so vehemently from those ideals.
The keys to Jewish survival against all odds, through the travails of history and the demonic visions of those who wished for a world without us, lie in three strengths: The ability to adapt to changing circumstances without sacrificing the ideals central to our identity; the vision to see the cycles of politics and power as passing and reparable; and the vow to hold fast to our defining faith in the moral arc of a universe that bends toward justice, goodness and blessing.
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