Don’t let the far-right define what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’
OpinionGuest Columnist

Don’t let the far-right define what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’

Supporting Israel does not mean unquestioning loyalty to its ascendent far-right government

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Joe Biden from his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2022. (Office of Benjamin Netanyahu.)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Joe Biden from his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2022. (Office of Benjamin Netanyahu.)

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

As the most hardline right-wing Israeli government in history takes office this week, many American Jews are asking how to best support the land we love without compromising our principles. We are asking ourselves, in short, what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

For decades, Israel-advocacy organizations have insisted there’s only one way for people who don’t live in Israel to be pro-Israel — and that is to support Israel uncritically, right or wrong.

In this black-and-white frame, those who criticize Israeli government actions are labeled “anti-Israel” or, worse yet, antisemitic.

The organization I founded 15 years ago, J Street, is frequently on the receiving end of such attacks. In recent weeks, AIPAC’s Twitter feed — run by the former digital director of the Republican National Committee — has pounded as a relentless mantra: “J Street is many things but it’s not pro-Israel.”

Such attacks are generally grounded in distortions or outright lies. But this obnoxious Twitter campaign has only helped me clarify my definition of “pro-Israel.”

To establish my pro-Israel credentials, I often cite my family history: great-grandparents who made aliyah in the 1880s, grandparents who helped found Tel Aviv, a father who fought for the country’s independence leading into 1948.

But their experience in the land isn’t what makes me pro-Israel. Nor is the three years I spent living in Israel in my 30s.

I am pro-Israel because I care about the future of the country and feel meaningfully connected to its people. I understand its security challenges and I want to help ensure its long-term safety.

I am pro-Israel because my vision for the country aligns with that of its founders, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the Jewish state “would be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

My pro-Israel activism has always envisioned an Israel that is the national home for the Jewish people even as it provides full, equal rights for all who live there — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and more.

Because that’s the Israel I was raised to believe in. A place that aimed to be “a light unto the nations,” as it says in the Book of Isaiah, not an occupying power denying another people their rights. 

To advance a vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors — including a free and independent state of Palestine next to Israel — I work here in the United States toward these goals in close partnership with Israeli activists who share my values.

And, to be clear, I recognize just how much Palestinians must do — and how much responsibility they bear — if there is to be long-term peace between the two peoples.

That vision couldn’t be more different than the vision of the political leaders forming the new Israeli government. Their vision — promoted by the settlement movement and its right-wing allies in the United States — traffics in racism, takes land and resources as it pleases and vows to live forever by the sword.

It’s a vision that writes off support from the majority of Jewish Americans in favor of an alliance with evangelical Christians, the MAGA world in the U.S. and the Victor Orbans and other autocrats of the global right.

The clash of visions over what it means to be “pro-Israel” could not be starker.

It’s part of a broader clash globally between an ethno-nationalist, antidemocratic worldview and a worldview grounded in respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

When self-appointed guardians of the pro-Israel tent in the U.S. define support for Israel as unquestioning support for Israel’s incoming government, they align support for Israel with support for the hardline global right.

The reality is that the pro-Israel tent will be strongest if there is room for both those who agree — and those who disagree — with Israel’s government at any given time. 

The tent is not well-served when those at its gates allow election deniers and dictators in, but keep principled progressives out.

That approach does not align with the views and values of the majority of American Jews. It drives our children and grandchildren away from a tradition that we taught them is grounded in ethics, values and debate.

When these pro-Israel guardians label critics of Israeli policy and actions anti-Israel — or worse, antisemitic — they alienate liberal Jewish Americans from Israel and other left-leaning Americans from the broader Jewish community. And they drive a wedge in the heart of the global Jewish community.

The pro-Israel tent is small enough as it is. Narrowing it further means its only occupants will be those few Americans who align with the hardline, theocratic politics of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Benjamin Netanyahu’s other far-right allies.  

And that, I believe as a pro-Israel American, is not a winning formula for Israel or the Jewish people. PJC

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