It's true. I chafed at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's claim that he represents all Jews. I wasn't alone. Netanyahu's Jewish critics included comedian Jon Stewart, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Danish Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior, French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, and others. (The rejections of Rabbi Melchior and Rabbi Korsia occurred in the immediate aftermaths of deadly Anti-Semitic attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, where Netanyahu asserted that all Jews should abandon Europe and move to Israel.)
So here I sit, a progressive American rabbi opining on Israel's election day. And, despite what I believe will be the likely results of the election (Netanyanu's Likud will lose the vote, Isaac Herzog's Zionist Camp will win the vote but be unable to form a governing coalition, and Netanyahu will, as happened in 2008/9, be tapped by Israel's President to form a coalition, making him Prime Minister again if he succeeds.) If I chafe at an Israeli Prime Minister claiming to speak for me, a diaspora Jew, what gives me the right to comment on Israeli politics? I'm not an Israeli citizen, I and my children haven't served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Anti-Semitism (usually masked as Anti-Zionism) I face as a Bay Area Jew, while very real, are emotional attacks but neither physical nor existential threats.
Here is the hard truth: the Prime Minister of Israel is, as Chancellor Arnold Eisen of my alma mater the Jewish Theological Seminary of America has argued, the most visible global face of the Jewish People. Though different, my discomfort with many of Netanyahu's policies reminds me of my distaste for some of the decisions American Presidents have made. To me, Netanyahu's international stance evokes a global world view of "us or them" and, according to many, his domestic economic policies have harmed employee productivity and increased the income gap. (I could point to problematic aspects of American domestic and foreign policies that mirror these, but suffice it to say: they exist.)
The reason for my engagement in Israeli politics is the very reason the Israeli Prime Minister does, de facto, represent me and every other Jew. While I disagree with many of Netanyahu's policies, I also know that he has been for 9 years the elected head of the only Jewish State in the world, a state that today demonstrates a vibrant democracy where every citizen -- Jew and Arab -- has a voice and a vote in determining these very policies and offices. To those who point to the many problems besetting Israel, geopolitical and hyper-local, I also say 'amen.' Israel is a work-in-progress, as is every nation. Zionism is a national identity called to tend to its citizens' vulnerabilities and its international relationships with renewed human compassion and particular Jewish commitments. Which is precisely the motivation for the high percentage of voter turnout at the polls today.
I am engaged in the destiny of Israel because it is a profound expression of Jewish self-determination, democracy, and human rights. Is it perfect? Of course not: it's a state. Does my aching Zionist heart hope for a change in Israel's leadership? From its core. Does my Zionism waver when Israel's leadership makes decisions with which I disagree? No. Should my pride in being an American citizen be lessened by a broken tax code that affords corporations unfair advantages and our justice system which perpetuates the racism of the Jim Crow era? No. I am passionate about correcting both national systems, reclaiming the nobility of these different core facets of my identity. Citizenship, as President Obama eloquently stated in his first inaugural address, comes with obligations. Sometimes these obligations are supported by a nation's leaders, sometimes new leaders are required to achieve them. But, as the great biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, once wrote: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In these ways and many more, my Zionism is a source of Jewish pride, human humility, and deep personal passion.
One more point: As a diaspora rabbi, I also feel called to point out that It would a mistake to say that the Anti-Semitism rearing its head around today's world is due to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, a policy I oppose. Anti-Semitism has raged in the past, reaching far longer than Israel's almost 67 years of existence. There is no need to recount the many nations that have denied the civil and human rights of Jews. But there is a need, however unfortunate that need may be, to point out that Israel's imperfections are judged more harshly than any other nation's on earth, demonstrable in the media, on campus, and in the public sphere. If only those horrified by Israel's complicated use of West Bank checkpoints would rally support for Palestinian leaders (like Salam Fayyad, whose championing economic stability in the West Bank -- a stark contrast to Hamas' ongoing fomenting of anti-Israel hatred in Gaza -- has changed the life of its Palestinian residents in ways no anti-Israel activist would acknowledge). If only human rights activists would focus on the 5-year Syrian civil war which has killed more than 200,000 Syrians and dislocated more than 20 percent of Syria's population. Is Israel always in the right? Of course not. Is it unfairly targeted? Absolutely. Is this Anti-Israel bias tolerable? No. Not only because it carries an echo of millennia of Anti-Semitism, but because it ignores the great successes of the Zionist enterprise on behalf of the Jewish People and the larger world.
In short: I don't get a vote in today's Israeli elections. But our destinies are one, interwoven by a world that sees us as the same, and by my own faith which does as well. I say as a Jew, as long ago said the prophet Isaiah: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till she emerges like the dawn, her light like a blazing torch."
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