The moral quandary many Zionists face today regards the political partnership Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged with the terrorist group Otzma Yehudit, an alliance of Jewish supremacists that was banned from Israeli politics by Israeli law, a loathsome group whose hateful founder prompted Netanyahu’s own Likud party to walk out of the hall when he spoke to Knesset decades ago.
This was a terrible decision on Netanyahu’s part, and the American Jewish mainstream has universally said so. Of the only two dissenting organizational voices, one is funded by Sheldon Adelson, reflecting his interests more than the Jewish community’s, and the other is a national synagogue body whose positive imprimatur upon Netanyahu’s decision led noted Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt to resign in protest from her synagogue in an act of Jewish conscience.
Netanyahu should rescind this arrangement; he should apologize to his country, to the Jewish People for besmirching our name, and to the world for furthering the cultural violence of me-first politics. His fear of the energized campaign of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid is no excuse for throwing Jewish morals and Zionism’s values (let alone 20 percent of Israel’s population) under the bus.
The Israeli government has long identified Otzma Yehudit as outside the parameters of civil society, and the American government has identified them as a terrorist organization, even banning the group’s leader from visiting the United States for a decade. It isn’t a liberal issue. It isn’t a conservative issue. It has been condemned by the ADL, AJC, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, a long list of Orthodox rabbis, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, let alone Israeli political rivals like “The New Right” leader Naftali Bennet. It is clear: Netanyahu was wrong, he has hurt many by this move, and he stands to hurt countless others if he does not change course.
Here’s the quandary: AIPAC, the biggest gathering of Zionists in America, also condemned Otzma Yehudit following the announcement. But, importantly, AIPAC did not explicitly criticize the Prime Minister. Not only that, hours later AIPAC issued a release, celebrating Netanyahu’s forthcoming live appearance at their annual Policy Conference. That Netanyahu will use his speech and the ritualized accolades of enthusiastic attendees as an election stop should not escape our attention. And therein lies the rub: What to do as a progressive AIPAC supporter?
Two years ago, hundreds of rabbis staged a walk-out during the appearance at AIPAC’s Policy Conference of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump for his actions, attitudes and comments toward women, immigrants, LGBTQ people and African Americans. No protest could compete with the applause he received that day, and yet the symbolic statement of hundreds of rabbis sent a clear message to AIPAC’s leadership, who have worked to respond to a rapidly shifting political landscape by affirming its bipartisan commitment, an unfortunately counter-cultural message in our hyper-partisan climate.
I am a progressive American rabbi who loves Israel with every fiber of my body. And that is why this moment causes so much pain. The homeland I love is being corroded from within by an opportunistic and amoral Prime Minister who plays American politics very, very well. He knows that American and Israeli citizens and activists will choose to hold their noses when their leaders reek of wrongness because the relationship between the countries is larger and more strategically important than the temporary occupants of their respective highest offices. I understand why some close friends disagree and wish I’d turn my back on AIPAC. It is a sad, real thing we face. Israel is as normal as Prime Minister David Ben Gurion dreamt it would be: a place where Jewish criminals face Jewish judges and where Jewish politicians act like, well… politicians.
The rabbis who protested Trump at Policy Conference two years ago were treated by AIPAC professionals and lay leaders with respect. To this day, we continue our work to retain Zionism’s progressive commitments within the American Zionist community, all with AIPAC’s explicit blessing and support. Trust me, I know. I have been a spirited sparring partner with AIPAC in this work, leading progressive rabbinic missions to Israel, convening a coalition of liberal Zionist American rabbis to amplify the well-rounded Zionism Theodore Herzl dreamt of, one of international security and societal justice. We’ve met with Palestinian leaders, LGBTQ activists, champions of Jewish pluralism, Arab Israeli civil rights activists, sharing our Zionist commitments to their successes. All of these steps have been met with unqualified support from AIPAC, which has engendered more than wrinkled noses from activists on the right for championing progressive values as part of its Zionist mission.
Ours is a rowdy, raw-nerved community. We feel the weight of Jewish history on our shoulders as we, each from our personal timeline’s truth, fight for our shared homeland’s welfare. Did the impending walkout change AIPAC’s decision to give a presidential candidate the floor? No. Did the walkout change the outcome of the 2016 election? No. Did rabbis speak their truths, “pray with our feet,” and marshal a good amount of media coverage? Yes. As a dear colleague recently put it, “a rabbi’s work is always symbolic.” Our walkout mattered, even if we knew it was never going to be enough.
The miracle-in-process of the State of Israel is, by every definition, mid-process, no question. America seems to have reaffirmed that truth in recent years as well. So, when rabbinic colleagues and other progressive Jewish leaders call for a rejection of AIPAC, I disagree. I will stand and march and sit and lobby and write and act in protest of specific decisions, sometimes very loudly, but always as a means of doing better in partnership, and always with Jewish and American values central in my heart.
I believe in the America that should and could and must be. I believe in the Israel that should and could and must be. As the psalmist recommended, I don’t place my trust in the hands of specific people, nor do I cede my national symbols to any one side of the political aisle, nor will I only pay attention to the shattered glass at our feet. I see the growing assaults on the institutions of American and Israeli democracy and respond with a tripling of my work in coalition with others to build what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, here and across the sea, in both of my homes.
After all, home is often complicated. But home is also worth the work, even if we know our generation’s work will not be enough. Please God, may we do our part to ensure that the leadership of our homeland is once again consonant with our people’s values, positioned appropriately for our children when it is their turn to dream.