Protesting against Israel valid or anti-Semitic: Organized community conflates policy, values

Jennifer Gorovitz’s Sept. 7 commentary (“House Resolution 35 exposes anti-Semitic fervor on California campuses”) and the related recent U.C. controversy it addressed underscore the divide within the American Jewish community growing from what many of us — secular and religious — experience as the incompatibility between Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the historic values of our people.

The University of California understandably rejected the legislative resolution Ms. Gorovitz spotlighted as running afoul of First Amendment protections in trying to constrain student protests.

Many of Ms. Gorovitz’s points are obviously valid. Without a doubt, U.C. student protesters often say hyperbolic things that go beyond reality and do things that are inexcusable. But the more important problem for us is the policies they’re protesting.

These protests highlight decades of occupation, years of blockade, wars of choice that kill at least hundreds of innocent people, indefinite imprisonment without trial, impoverishment through various means and settlement expansion that appears aimed at making Palestinian Arabs’ dispossession ever more comprehensive and irreversible, all of which we are essentially told to support as loyal Jews.

The central issue is a conflation of Judaism, the Jewish people and the policies of the State of Israel promoted sadly by the organized American Jewish community as it chronically subordinates Jewish values and teachings to whatever Israel’s government does.

Of all threats to the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish identity of our children, this conflation is the most profound.

While social research suggests most American Jews in fact oppose Israeli policies — not that most of them are ever asked — the organized community in its various manifestations has sadly for decades contorted itself to rationalize continuing economic, political and moral support that helps keep Israel on its current course. Agitation against U.C. student protests of the occupation is a small aspect of this.

One of three commands to “love” in the Torah is of course to love the other, “the stranger.” Jewish values with which generations were raised grew out of the history of liberation from slavery and included the obligation of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and serving as a “light to nations.”

Today’s Israel by contrast seems to have become uncomfortably more like the empires the Jewish people historically defined itself against, its priorities seemingly on expansion and control of millions of faceless Arab “strangers,” like ancient Rome demonizing its enemies as “terrorists,” endlessly citing “painful compromises” it might make in negotiations in some infinitely receding future to keep up the support it counts on from the U.S. government and Jewish communities worldwide.

Judaism has been a religion of universal values, at least over the last 2,000 years and more, not a national military cult like some of the people who seem to want to bring us back to the age of Judges and Kings apparently believe.

During this season of reflection, it’s worth considering how the situation might be different if traditional Jewish values were allowed to affect Israel’s posture toward the Palestinians.

Imagine generosity, empathy, concern for the other really influencing Israeli policy, a perhaps naive but potentially powerful thought.

What if earlier Barak and Olmert offers of two-state compromise solutions — cited by Israel’s advocates as proving its good intentions — were left on the table for negotiation rather than being “Here today, gone tomorrow” historical chimeras?

What if Netanyahu gave up the blockade that keeps Gaza a virtual prison, acknowledged Hamas’ victory in Palestine’s only contested election, for the first time recognizing the right of Palestinians — like Israelis and all other humans — to choose their own leadership, and courageously offered to visit Gaza for talks as Sadat went to Jerusalem?

The central story of the Scriptures is of an Israel that loses its land through losing touch with its ideals and its God, betting “pragmatically” on the wrong empires and the wrong deities — or, in the language of the modern: the wrong values.

Ms. Gorovitz and the organized community, as ever, ask us to pay attention not to what Israel does but to intemperate things its critics say.

The price we pay over time for continued organized community support for Israeli policies — of a kind few if any Jews would countenance practiced by any other state against any other people — includes fundamental erosion of our own values, through which many of us have defined ourselves as Jews, and of what we can credibly pass on to our children.

Steve Koppman lives in Oakland and is co-author of “Treasury of American-Jewish Folklore.”